Imogen Heap's "Tidal": Using a Melodic Shape as a Formal Map

Written by Gary Ewer, from The Essential Secrets of Songwriting website.

How do we identify a good song to someone else? Generally it’s by the melody. You don’t usually go to a friend and say, “Hey, I just heard this great new song…”, and then tap out the prominent rhythmic motifs, or recite the text. No, we usually hum the melody, since it is usually the most important and memorable element. So creating melodic shapes that are memorable is paramount.

The concept of creating distinctive melodic shapes for music is nothing new. Beethoven did it with great success in the famous opening of his Symphony No. 5, and then repeated it more than 200 times throughout that first movement. Popular song composers do it as well. “Tidal”, by Imogen Heap, creates a small melodic shape that then serves as a map for the larger form of the song. Here’s how that works.

The melodic motif that is established early in the song is a quickly rising leap, and then a descending scale passage on the words “Before electric light”, ending with a small turn upward:

That shape is repeated in the next line, with an elaboration of the descending component: “You paddled through the soup of darkness as a crocodile…”:

Establishing a melodic motif is, as I pointed out, nothing new in music. But what I love about Imogen Heap’s compositional technique  is that when you study the line drawing of the melodic shape above, you start to notice that that it also describes the larger shape of the melody throughout the entire first part of the song:

It’s an aspect of form that listeners will not consciously pick up on, but it’s the sort of thing that makes melodies more memorable. By beginning with a distinctive ascending-descending shape, Imogen Heap creates an outline that stamps itself on the brain of the listener. This helps create a sense of expectation regarding how the rest of the song plays out. By then taking that small shape and using it as a template for the larger form of the entire first verse and chorus, she succeeds in making a melody that is more easily retained by the listener.

It’s a compositional trick that the world’s greatest composers have used (J. S. Bach, especially), and it’s great to see it being used to such brilliant effect in this song. One can argue that this kind of structural devise may not have even been known by Heap as she composed the song, but some of the best elements of good composition happen on an instinctual level, and don’t require the active realization of the composer. It’s the result of keen musical understanding and experience.

To apply this technique to your own songs, take a look at the first melodic shape that you use – the melody of the beginning of your verse. Try to use that small shape as the map for the larger form of the verse-chorus. Your listeners will likely not be aware that they are hearing a shape within a shape, but the result will be a melody that people find easier to remember.

Gary Ewer has written several songwriting e-books designed to get you writing great songs! Click here to become the songwriter you’ve always wanted to be!

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  1. I have only just discovered Imogen Heap.her name must in some way be related to my own. But as retired doctor, brought up on prog rock from the late 60’s, presumably before she was born, and having seen hundreds of my favourite groups live, the way she rocks out at the Albert Hall on Tidal compares with the best I have ever seen . I hope she is still performing and I wish i’d found her earlier.
    Chris Heath.

  2. Pingback: A Powerful Way To Plan An Entire Song | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

  3. Thank you so much for this post! I am spending all my mornings trying to learn how to become a better song writer. So posts like these are very helpful! Imogen Heap in my main study guide at the moment due to her brilliant song writing abilities. Every single song she writes is good IMO.

    • I agree. Every song she writes is so strong, and in my opinion every songwriter, regardless of their genre, should be studying her music as a way of improving.

      Good luck with all your songwriting projects, Laurie Ann.

  4. great post.

    could you please explain if the piece changes time signatures due to varying rhythm in intro middle and the rock influence at the end.


    • I don’t have the recording right here in front of me, but my memory of “Tidal” is that the time signature does not change. I’ll give it a listen later today and confirm.

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