Melodies Without Shape: Doomed to Be Failures

Gary Ewer•Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” E-book Bundle

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Band - MelodyTo the untrained ear, a melody may seem like a random collection of notes from a chosen key. But melodies without contour are doomed to be failures. A melody needs to partner closely not just with the chord progression, but also with the form of the song. In general you will find that successful melodies are pitched higher in choruses than in verses, and higher still in bridges.

Moreover, the tonic note appears more often in the chorus melody than in the verse. One way to keep close tabs on this important melodic principle is through the use of plateau pitches.

A plateau pitch is simply a note around which a melody resides, and helps to define and establish areas of song energy. A great example is  “Big Green Tractor”, written by Jim Collins and David Lee Murphy, recently a hit for Jason Aldean. It follows a standard verse – chorus – bridge format.

In the verse, most of the notes hover around the note G# (the 3rd note of the scale). This G# represents a melodic plateau for the verse; melodic shapes move in and around, above and below, this note. In addition to this, the writers also make use of a descending 3rd as a melodic motif, and this contributes to the relaxed feel of the verse.

Because we want to hear an increase of energy as a song progresses, a new plateau is created at the chorus: the dominant note (B) is the new plateau. In addition, the melodic motif reverses and becomes an ascending figure (G# to B, with occasional C#). These two elements together help to build energy. They contribute to the sense of musical form for the song, and as listeners we are subconsciously aware of  melodic pitch as an important formal element.

The final stage of development occurs in the bridge: the plateau pitch becomes C#: it’s highest level, and bonds beautifully with the energy of the lyric.

Using plateau pitches is only one way to construct a melody, but it can be a wonderful solution for songwriters going through a compositional slump. Simply start by establishing plateau pitches for the verse, chorus and bridge. Though it’s not necessary to stick with the notes of the tonic triad, you’ll find that especially the chorus should use either the 3rd or 5th note of the home chord. The bridge plateau pitch should be any pitch higher than that. Couple that with short musical shapes that recur throughout the song (a musical motif) and you will have the makings of a successful song.

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