Two-Part Melodies as a Complete Song Structure

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Bette Midler - The RoseIn Classical music, it’s usually known as binary form. In popular songwriting, we normally just think of it as a verse with two sections, usually without a chorus. Two-part melodies are a good alternative to verse-chorus-bridge structures that are common in pop music genres. There are times when the simple two-part structure makes a lot of sense. In particular, songs with a strong lyric will benefit. So if you’re the kind of songwriter that likes to focus on text before anything else, consider binary form.

There are different ways the two-part structure happens in popular music. Sometimes it’s a simple two-part verse that may or may not start with an intro. “Seven Bridges RoadThe Eagles - Seven Bridges Roadby The Eagles is a good example here. Its formal design is a simple one: AB.

Sometimes a two-part verse will consist of four short phrases that feature a return to the first phrase – in effect, an AABA form: “The Rose” (written by Amanda McBroom, recorded most famously by Bette Midler)

And perhaps the most common two-part verse is actually a verse-refrain form. In these songs, the refrain usually includes the words of the song’s title, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” (Bob Dylan). AThe Freewheelin' Bob Dylan refrain differs from a chorus in that it’s usually one line long, sometimes repeated, starting on a chord that’s a non-tonic chord, moving to the tonic. In that sense, a refrain offers a musical resolution to the verse which often (but not always) ends on a non-tonic chord.

For these types of verse-refrain songs, a common formal design is ABAC, with C representing the refrain at the end.

For whatever incarnation of the two-part form you choose, there are things to keep in mind that will increase your likelihood of success with it:

  1. Most two-part melodies need a high point, and you’ll usually find it in the second half of the form. In “Seven Bridges Road”, it’s right at the beginning of the second part of the melody. In “The Rose”, it’s the B section.
  2. Allow the second part of the form to descend to a lower final cadence. You’ll see this easily in “Blowin’ in the Wind”. There is no distinctive high point in the melody that resides above the other phrases, but there is a prominent sense of repose at the end, as the melody, which had been hanging around the dominant (5th) note of the key, finally descends to the tonic.
  3. Try allowing the second half of the melody to be a harmonic continuation of the first part. You can do this in two ways: 1) Allow the first part to end on a non-tonic chord; or 2) if the first part ends on a tonic chord, allow the last note of the first section melody to be a non-tonic note.
  4. Place the song title in a musically prominent place. Normally this will be the last line of the two-part form.
Many two-part songs tend to be a bit shorter than verse-chorus-bridge songs, so if you need a bit more length, place an instrumental solo or other bridge-like structure immediately after the second run-through of the melody. Then return for a final presentation of the melody.

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