Simplifying the Songwriting Process: Plateau Pitches

Songs don’t often require lots of notes. A plateau pitch can help you create a good melody with minimum fuss and effort.


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The Black Keys - Gold On The CeilingWe know that the way a melody proceeds often has to do with its subject matter. For example, if you’re writing a song that describes strong opinions, forthrightness or determination, centring  your melody around one or two pitches can help enhance the strong emotions and intensify the song’s energy. But those reasons aside, it’s important to note that a lot of great songs have been written that don’t use melodies that move all over the place.

In other words, if you’re finding melodies hard to write, it’s possible that you’re overly focused on getting your melody to encompass too large a footprint, so to speak.

While some songs are notable for their beautiful and expansive melodies (“Unchained Melody”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, and so on), there are lots of examples of songs for which the number of notes used is considerably smaller, from 4 to 6 separate pitches, and centring particularly on one or two pitches (“Hound Dog” (Lieber & Stoller), “Kiss” (Prince), for just two classic examples.)

If you’re finding that the melody-writing process is slowing you down, try using the concept of plateau pitches. A plateau pitch simply means one note around which the majority of your verse or chorus’s melody revolves. When you use a plateau pitch, you’re repeating one pitch over and over again. When you move off that pitch, you keep returning to it.

Many songs use melodies that are written in this way. Lennon and McCartney’s “Help!“, in A major, uses a plateau pitch of C# (the 3rd of A major) in the verse. And because choruses tend to be pitched higher than verses, the plateau pitch becomes E for the chorus.

What you hear in “Help” is that even though C# is the all-important plateau pitch of the verse, the melody is by no means limited. It simply means that each line starts on that note, and repeats it often. But most of the verse phrases move away from, and then back to, C#. A plateau pitch serves as a central focus around which the melody moves.

For a more contemporary example, listen to The Black Keys hit song “Gold On The Ceiling.” The song is in the key of G major. As you can hear, the melody moves around considerably, but you the note D plays a significant role in the verse. Melodies start on D, move up, move down, always returning to D as an important focus.

For the chorus, the note G takes over. The pitch is repeated, and serves as a returning point for each phrase.

To write a melody using a plateau pitch, you’ll want to make certain that the chord progression uses at least 3 or 4 chords. This makes sure that the bass line and harmonies are changing at a fairly regular pace, serving as a good balance for a melody that centres on one pitch.

Here are some basic tips for writing a melody using plateau pitches:

  1. A chorus plateau pitch should be higher than a verse plateau pitch.
  2. Start your song by choosing either the 3rd or 5th of your song’s key. Improvise a melody that starts on that pitch, moves away, and keeps returning to that pitch. This will serve as a good verse structure.
  3. Move the plateau up to either the dominant (5th) or high tonic for the chorus.
  4. If your song uses a bridge, move the plateau higher.
  5. It’s up to you how much you sit on that one plateau pitch when you write your melodies. However, don’t feel you have to sing the one pitch constantly. As you hear in “Help!”, there are lots of repeated pitches, but also lots of melodic contour as well.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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    • Thanks very much. I’m presently planning a redesign of the site ( as well as a new template for the blog. I think I’m also done with white on black. The site design may take longer, but I’ll probably go to a black-print-on-white-background very soon, possibly this coming week.


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