Working a Melody in an Upward Direction

From the start of a verse to the end of a chorus, melodic direction should be generally upward. Here’s a close look at that principle.

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David Nail - Let It RainThere’s a good reason why melodies typically work their way upward as a verse-chorus song progresses. It’s because chorus lyrics are usually more emotive than verse lyrics, and voices in their high range naturally allow us to feel those emotions more intensely. So the general rule is to find ways to allow choruses to sit higher in pitch than verses. One way to make sure that happens is to think of melodies as dwelling on certain “plateaus” rather than simply musical lines that move up and down indiscriminately, and then moving the plateaus higher.

Songs that are verse-only forms (like “White Christmas”) often have an inverted-U shape, where the beginning of the verse is low in pitch (“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas..”), then rises to some climactic point (“..May your days be merry and bright..”) before descending to a finish (“..And may all your Christmases be white.”)

But songs in verse-chorus form will benefit from the rising melody that slowly ascends from the start of the verse, until a climactic point in the chorus.

David Nail’s current hit “Let It Rain“, from his album The Sound of a Million Dreams is a good model to study, even if country isn’t your genre of choice.

The song is in E major. The verse is 4 phrases long, each phrase using a descending motif as a basic shape, or cell. This is an important point: just because the general direction of a melody is upward, that doesn’t mean that your melody must use only upward-moving melodic cells. This song uses musical cells with a downward shape as it works its way upward.

The verse melody begins by using the note B as an upper plateau. It hits that B and follows it with a descending melodic shape. After a repeat of the phrase, the plateau moves up, to the note E. Again, it follows the E with a descending scalewise passage. The higher plateau intensifies emotion.

The chorus plateau is the G# above the E. That G# is the highest note we hear so far, and it coincides with the song title, and the most emotionally intense words of the song to this point: “So let it rain, let it pour/She don’t love me anymore..

Another important point: the various plateau pitches that we encounter throughout this song happen to come from the tonic chord. This is not a rule of course, but it imparts a clear idea of design that fortifies the song’s structure.

When you write your song melodies, you can do yourself a big favour by focusing on specific pitch plateaus. It keeps your melodies from rambling, and helps you keep control of where it’s headed.

As you work out your melody, it can help to take your pen and write down your melody’s most significant pitches as the song proceeds. For this song, you would have written down B, E and G#.

And it’s a design feature that works well in any genre, not just country. And while not all melodies are constructed this way, you’d be surprised by how many are. Listen to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean“, and notice how important the note C# is to the opening of the verse – how it acts like an upper plateau. Then notice how the F# above it suddenly becomes the focus of the melody beginning of the 5th phrase. These kinds of plateaus will help keep melodies from wandering aimlessly.

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