Creating Melodic Symmetry to Strengthen Song Structure

Reversing the direction of a melodic line can give a sense of symmetry to your song, and make it easier to remember.


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Lights - "Siberia"Canadian singer-songwriter Lights (Lights Valerie Poxleitner) writes music that demonstrates two songwriting principles that work in any genre – the notion that repetition and symmetry will strengthen song structure. Repetition of melodic ideas throughout the entirety of a melody while the supporting harmonies change makes music very memorable. Symmetry refers to the changing direction of melodies as a song progresses. While most listeners are usually aware of repetitive elements in a song, symmetry provides opportunities for songwriters to strengthen their song’s structure in a much more subtle way.

Lights’ latest release is Siberia (iTunes), and the title track is a good demonstration of both songwriting concepts. The value of repetition in dance-genre music should be evident. What is particularly captivating here is that most of the melodic ideas that are woven together in this tune dwell mainly on the pentatonic scale, with the exception of an opening vocalization in the intro.

A pentatonic scale is any 5-note scale, but the most commonly-used variety avoids semitones by eliminating the 4th and 7th degrees of a major scale, giving you the notes C D E G A (in C major pentatonic).

Melodic ideas that are based on a pentatonic scale are very easy to harmonize, and allow you to more easily repeat the ideas verbatim. That’s because by eliminating the semitones, you eliminate many potential dissonances. Try this: create a short pentatonic fragment in C major. Now sing the melody repeatedly, changing the chords to any standard diatonic chord from C major. Most of the chords you choose should work just fine.

And you hear this technique throughout “Siberia.” The verse melody is a short pentatonic fragment that repeats with little variation while the chords supporting it change underneath.

Lights - "Siberia"As you can see, it’s a mainly descending motif, stepwise except for a downward leap at the end. Which gets us to the second point: creating symmetry within melodies to strengthen structure.

For the chorus, a new idea is constructed using the same pentatonic structure, but reversing direction. It starts with a leap downward, but then features a mainly rising melody. It’s not the melody above reversed; rather, it takes the same melodic content (with the addition of the note A). Also, the rhythm of the first bar of the verse becomes in large part the rhythm of the second bar of the chorus:

Lights "Siberia" chorus fragment

This kind of symmetry is not usually noticeable on first listening; it’s the kind of thing that does its job mainly in the background. Reversing melodic direction is perhaps one of the easiest and most beneficial techniques songwriters could be using to strengthen the connection between verse and chorus. And as you see in “Siberia”, reversing direction does not need to mean reversing an exact replica of the verse melody.

One other note about pentatonic melodies: Just because pentatonic melodies avoid the 4th and 7th degrees of a major scale does not mean that supporting harmonies must also avoid them. In fact, “Siberia” uses Fmaj9 (FACEG) as an important structural chord throughout the song.


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