To be Memorable, Song Melodies Need Form

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Jack JohnsonYou know your melody works if you find that it gets inside your head and you’re humming it all day long. I can almost guarantee you that any melody that you find yourself singing endlessly has used a good dose of repetition. Repeating elements are what makes songs memorable. How good a songwriter you are really depends on how well you manage those repeating features. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, too much repetition creates boredom, and not enough repetition doesn’t give the listener anything to retain.

I’ve been giving Jack Johnson’s new album “To the Sea” a listen lately, and love his mastery of the art of melody writing. Most of his melodies work because of their simplicity. The simplicity comes from an expert control of repetition. The title track features a simple 2-bar melody that’s repeated; the chorus is comprised of a short descending-scale melody that’s reiterated.

And most of the melodies on the album show a similar melodic construction. Of course, Jack Johnson didn’t invent the 2-phrase melody comprised of two repeating melodic fragments. Composers have been doing this for centuries.

We use letters to describe formal design in music. Repeating phrases get the same letter (with an apostrophe afterward if the melodic phrase is almost identical.) The six phrases of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” can be described as: ABCCAB

If you find that your songs are following the ABCD… etc format, you’re going to have a bit of trouble getting that to hook into listeners’ brains. Too much repetition can tire the mind, however. Repetition is like a friend: you want to see him often, but not all the time, every day.

But some songs work well with a lot of repetition. “The Good Life”, by Three Days Grace, uses four short phrases as its intro (AAAB format). Then the first verse uses that same AAAB format. What makes this much repetition work is that the phrases are short, simple, and easy to remember.

Here are some other forms to try:

ABAB
Current hit song “Cooler Than Me” by Mike Posner uses what is probably a more standard form, ABA’B’. This form opens with a musical phrase, then uses a different melodic shape to act as an answer. The two phrases then repeat almost identically.

ABA
For something a little different, try a 3-phrase segment. Music that is structured into three phrases is not all that common, but country hit songwriter Brad Paisley uses ABA’ as the verse structure of his latest hit, “Water.”

AAB
Another 3-phrase form, it’s the one used by Lennon and McCartney in “Hard Day’s Night.” This short form works well in a Verse-Bridge format.

AABA
Perhaps one of the most common song forms, you can hear this form in songs like “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (AA’BA”). It can also describe a larger, 32-bar form. Think of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, and you’ve got a perfect demonstration of the 32-bar song form.

And back to that ABCD… form that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, that’s the form used for the verse of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

My recommendation to songwriters is that you consider changing up the forms you use for your songs frequently. It’s part of the genius of Jack Johnson: his ability to use subtle variations on repetitious forms.

Listeners are not often readily able to discern one form from another, but songs that use the same form exhibit a sameness that you’ll want to avoid if possible.

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