Crafting a Melody By Using Melodic Cells

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Norah Jones released a new album, “The Fall”, this past November. Its first single is “Chasing Pirates.” It’s a great song with an infectious laid-back groove that really hooks into your brain. As a songwriter, that’s your aim – get a song out there that people keep humming all day long. One of the strong compositional aspects of this song is the way the melody is constructed by similar-shaped pitch cells.

The beauty of “Chasing Pirates” is its simplicity. The harmonic progression is straight-forward:

F Dm Bbmaj7 Gm || Bb C F Dm||

As with so many of the world’s best songs, the simplicity of design becomes the genius of design. We’ve seen that for songs to work, connections need to be made from one element to another. For example, emotionally-charged words in the lyric usually coincide with harmonically and melodically distinctive moments. In the case of “Chasing Pirates,” the melody from the chorus adopts a similar shape as the melody of the verse, while happening on a higher tonal plane.

The verse makes use of a 6-note ascending-descending cell:

It’s a lovely, distinctive little shape that has an almost hypnotic effect. The rising/falling contour becomes a melodic motif for the song. Taking a look at the chorus melody reveals how Jones uses that simple shape by linking together similar shapes:

You can easily see that the chorus is actually comprised of two iterations of a rising/falling shape linked together. It’s a great demonstration of constructing a melody by use of melodic shapes. And Jones modifies the shape as the song progresses in order to build song energy: in the opening of the verse the cell spans the interval of a 4th. Then at the start of the chorus, the shape expands to the interval of a 5th, followed by a 6th. The increasing interval size builds energy, and the repetition of the melodic contour acts as a motif that gives purpose to the melody.

If you’re working on the melody for your next song, you can use this technique to solve your writer’s-block-related problems. If you’ve got a verse melody but can’t seem to develop a chorus, try dissecting your verse and look at the overall shape of it. You may discover that you’ve been instinctively using a particular melodic cell over and over. Once you’ve identified that cell, try any one of the following in your chorus:

  1. Duplicate it in the chorus, but try wider intervals to increase song energy.
  2. Invert the shape: whatever shape is predominant in the verse, do the opposite in the chorus.
  3. If the cell you identify is quite leapy, try a chorus that uses lots of repeated notes.
  4. If you use many words to one pitch, try using many pitches to one word.

In any case, doing either the same thing or the opposite actually winds up achieving a similar desirable goal: it links the melodies of your song together motivically, and gives a discernible form to your song.
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Open your mind to the fantastic world of songwriting! Check out Gary Ewer’s downloadable book, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, plus his five other e-books.

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