Strengthening Song Structure by Reversing Melodic Direction

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Bruno Mars - "Grenade"Contrast is one of the most important elements of successful songs. You want to contrast one section (a verse, for example) with another (the chorus) enough so that they’re distinctive, but don’t differ so much that they sound like they come from different songs. Without enough contrast, songs tend to sound long and boring, with chords, melody and lyrics coming across like a long run-on sentence. So how do you create enough, but not too much, contrast?

One great way to do it is to simply observe the general direction of your melody in the verse, and work out a chorus melody that goes in the opposite direction.

Many songs do this, and a good model to study is Bruno Mars’ latest hit, “Grenade.”

The song is in the key of D minor (mainly Aeolian mode, actually, with short chorus visits to F major). You’ll notice, if you study the verse melody, that most of the fragments that create the melody are short, downward moving shapes.

You see this on the opening lyric, “Easy come, easy go..” and “Oh, take, take, take it all but you never give..

And throughout the verse, the downward direction is prevalent. The second part of the verse sees the continuation of this downward movement, in longer phrases:

Gave you all I had and you tossed it in the trash
You tossed it in the trash, you did..

One way to create chorus contrast, a method I’ve written about recently, is to create a chord progression that focuses on the relative major key; in other words, consider shifting to F major. But “Grenade” finds its chorus contrast by reversing melodic direction.

And it does it rather cleverly. The chorus features upward moving melodic fragments: “I’d catch a grenade for ya/ Throw my hand on a blade for ya..“. But it continues to use a downward motion at the end of each phrase. The end result is that even though downward-moving melodic shapes are the motif that connects all the melodic ideas throughout the song, upward-moving shapes are the element that appear in the chorus, allowing the chorus to differ adequately from the verse.

The chorus works its way upward, as good choruses usually do, giving us a climactic high point (C#) in the second half.

The great thing about reversing melodic direction to provide contrast is that you can keep the same key, and in fact, even keep the same set of melodic notes, looking only for an opportunity to provide a climactic moment for your chorus.

By using the same or similar notes for your chorus, you’re ensuring a strong connection between verse and chorus. By reversing the direction of your melodic shapes, you provide the necessary contrast that keeps songs from becoming boring.


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