The Tonic Note's New Place in the Chorus

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It’s a commonly-known songwriting principle that the tonic note – the note representing the key of your song – should occur more often in the chorus melody than in any other part of your song. This will probably happen quite naturally, because we know that chorus harmonies should feature the tonic chord more than in any other song section. So the tonic note will logically follow.

What we usually mean is that the phrases within your chorus melody will tend to keep returning to that tonic note. You can point to many, many songs from many eras whose chorus or refrain does this: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”, Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are”… They all feature choruses whose melodies amount to a musical journey that’s trying to get back to the tonic note.

But lately, there’s quite  a number of hit songs that feature that tonic note in a different way. Rather than that tonic note representing the culmination of a “melodic journey” home, the tonic note is stated over and over again as the beginning and main characteristic of the melody, while chords underneath it change.

You’ll see this repeated tonic note as the main melodic motif in songs like Pink’s “Raise Your Glass”, Nelly’s “Just a Dream”, Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite”, and others.

By starting the chorus with a constantly repeating tonic note, the musical journey typical of a classic chorus melody has changed somewhat. That musical journey has in the past been characterized by melodic shapes that move away from and back toward the tonic note, with that note and the tonic chord coinciding at the end of the chorus.

Now, more and more writers use the tonic note as a kind of melodic “plateau” that is stated and repeated at the beginning and throughout the chorus. Chords change fairly quickly underneath, and in a very real sense it is the chord progression in these types of songs that represent the musical journey, not the melodies.

So what’s the benefit of a melody that features a constantly repeating tonic note? Since the tonic is the note that is in the strongest position musically, the repetition of that note tends to add a significant dose of power. It’s the reason that songs using the repeated tonic are usually fast-paced, energetic dance tunes, and not often ballads.

Usually, of course, you’ll need to choose chords that allow for the tonic chord, which means avoiding the V-chord, for example. But since the repeated tonic is, in a sense, an inverted pedal, you might be able to create interesting effects by choosing chords occasionally that don’t usually allow for the tonic note. It can make for an interesting musical experiment.

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