Balancing all the Elements of a Song

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website. Gary is the author of six songwriting e-books designed to get you thinking about how you write music. Click here to read about those e-books.
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MelodySomeone recently drew my attention to a great article that Suzanne Vega wrote several months ago for the New York Times, called “What’s a Melody For?” In it, she makes the observation that some really successful hit songs have rather constricted, flat melodies. So why do those songs work? Mainly, it’s because of the balance that exists between the various components of the song.

So if you need to hear me say it (after all my rantings that melodies need shape to be memorable), it is sometimes possible to have a melody that is very flat and dimensionless, and have it work quite nicely. But how could a melody that mainly dwells on one pitch be at all desirable?

What really works in a song is balance. Songs are made up of three main components: melody, harmony and lyric, under which a rhythmic structure provides an important base. No one of those elements exists on its own; they all integrate with each other in important ways.

One of the songs Suzanne Vega refers to in her article is Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”, the verse of which features a meandering, rather unremarkable melody. She also mentions Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which barely moves from the note C. So how did these songs really make it?

You’ll find that for unremarkable melodies to work well, they need one other component to step up and become more important. In both “Wild Side” and “Rolling Stone”, it’s the lyric. Both songs feature repetitive, strong chord progressions, and the narrative becomes the main entrée.

But that still doesn’t answer why a songwriter would choose such a flat melody. The great thing about a melody that doesn’t move much in any direction is that they serve as very good conduits for lyrics that feature determination, dedication, forthrightness. The static melody is a great vehicle for lyrics of social justice or politics (Dylan) or for lyrics that recount a sassy, irreverent story (Reed).

But in all of this, balance is a key ingredient. A static melody needs a strong progression to give it the stability that it needs, and needs a lyric that draws the listener in.

One more thing: the melody that dwells on one note is very distinctive, so don’t expect to do several songs on your next album that feature this particular construct. Think of it as a technique, and one that will get tired quickly if used too often.

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To read more about song, and how to ensure your song’s elements are balanced, read about Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books. Right now, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting: Chord Progression Formulas” is being offered free with any purchase. Click here to read more about these songwriting texts.

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2 Comments

  1. I think the Dylan song you’re referring to is “Subterranean Homesick Blues “.

    You’re right about the refrain for “Rolling Stone”, D. J. And you actually mention something that I should have also referred to, which is that the rather static verse is a great “balance partner” (to use a seesaw analogy) for that refrain melody.

    Thanks for your comments!

  2. The chorus melody in Dylans “rolling Stone” is pretty distinctive ( the pitch for the word feel really sticks out and fights the harmonic part).

    The dylan song that really stays stuck on a note is the one that has the line “the pump don’t work cause the vandal took the handle “!!

    (sorry , can’t remember : highway something revisited ??… Help gary !)

    With his lyrical ability , he got away with lesser melodies allot .

    So every once in a while folks like springsteen get away with having the melody the same for the verse and chorus ( Born in the USA….. another angst riddled lyric with linear melody) ; It’s probably not something to rely on often.

    The balance issue is where it’s at !

    Enough predictabilty so as not to alienate;
    But not to much variety so as not to….. alienate !!!

    Geeze , sorta like being a chef , Put that salt/garlic/cilantro in slowly and carefully!!

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