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We usually think of good melodies as having a distinctive shape and a climactic high point. It may surprise you to know, however, that it’s possible to have melodies that use very few notes, almost no distinctive contour, and seem to be totally lacking in anything climactic. Nelly’s “Just a Dream” features melodies that use flat, static lines, many repeated notes, and nothing that you might call a climactic high point.
I usually mention Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” as another example of melodies that have a very restricted tone set: only three pitches. But what a song!
So why do we keep insisting that melodies need a large number of pitches, along with an obvious shape and a high point, when we have examples from every genre that seem to contradict that advice?
When we say that melodies need shape, we’re really only mentioning part of the formula governing what makes a good melody. Yes, it’s usually true that melodies need these things. But in fact, there are many ways that songwriters can contravene this advice, and give us a melody that flies in the face of conventional wisdom.
So despite the large repertoire of songs that give us gorgeous, well-shaped melodies with a high point (“If You Leave Me Now” (Chicago), “Roundabout” (Yes), “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Simon & Garfunkel), “Isn’t She Lovely” (Stevie Wonder)”, etc.), there are lots of songs that use a different kind of melody. Check these examples out:
- Flat, Contourless Melody: Keep the Chords Moving. Melodies that use a very restricted number of notes, with lots of repetition, need to have chords changing underneath them, to give the impression of motion. That’s the success of “Just a Dream”.
- Flat, Contourless Melody: Give Us a Great Lyric. If your lyric is opinionated, or addresses important “social justice” kinds of things, repeated notes can help bang that lyrical message home. Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” uses lots of repeated notes that help to convey lyrical meaning.
- Flat, Contourless Melody: Use Plateau Pitches. There’s a way to use lotst of repeated notes, but still incorporate the idea of an upward moving melody, by using so-called “plateau pitches.” Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor” is a great example. The verse dwells on the note G# (from E major), while the chords keep changing underneath. The chorus moves the plateau up to B, with C# then becoming important in the Bridge. Each melody uses its own plateau pitch, and the fact that successive plateaus are higher, the song gains energy as it moves forward.
- Downward Moving Melody: Put the Emotion First. We tend to think of a good melody as something that starts a bit low, and gives us the climactic moment later. But if you put the emotion-laden words near the beginning, you can start high and work your way down. A perfect example is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
- Chorus Melody Lower than Verse. The conventional wisdom is that chorus melodies should be higher than verse melodies, because higher melodies usually generate more energy. But there are other ways to generate energy, and a repeated lyric will do it. Kaskade’s “Dynasty” is a great example, with the line “This is a dynasty..” being lower than the lines that lead up to it.
The best advice to give with regard to melodic structure is to make sure something is there to keep the listener listening. Static melodies for no good reason create boredom. Boredom can usually be averted by at least ensuring that the chords underneath the melody are always changing.
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