How Plateau Pitches Can Help You Write Better Song Melodies

Not only can plateau pitches improve your melody-writing technique, it can simplify the process.


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Ellie Goulding - LightsIt’s possible to simplify the notion of writing song melodies by simply saying that most good melodies move in a stepwise fashion (i.e., the notes of the melody move mostly alphabetically: E F G G A G F E… etc), with occasional leaps. The verse of “Everybody Talks“, by Neon Trees, is a perfect example. But when you look at some of the world’s most notable melodies, you’ll notice something else: for any one section of a song, you’ll tend to see the notes of a melody dwelling on one particular note, and moving above and below it.

I call that note a plateau pitch. That note serves as a kind of melodic focal point, and the fact that it happens more than other notes helps to generate song energy.

To give you a good example of what I’m trying to describe here, think of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind“. It’s in the key of D major, and the  plateau pitch is A. This plateau is the dominant note (i.e., the 5th note) of D major. The melody moves above and below the note A, always returning to it. As most songs that use a verse-refrain structure, the refrain then descends from the plateau pitch, eventually ending on the tonic note (D).

Another good example from the country charts is Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor.” In fact, his use of plateau pitches is a great model for this concept, because he keeps moving the plateau pitch upward as a way of generating even more energy. The song is in the key of E major. The verse plateau pitch is G#. It then moves up to B for the chorus, and finally even higher, to C# for the bridge.

Of course, not all good song melodies use this plateau pitch idea. But using plateau pitches has two purposes:

  1. It strengthens melodic structure by acting as a kind of “anchor” while other things, especially chord progressions, move around it.
  2. It simplifies the melody-writing process. Instead of allowing your brain to be overwhelmed with what note to write next, it makes it more likely that the same pitch will work just fine.

To write a song melody using plateau pitches, try the following steps:

  1. Choose a song key.
  2. Create chord progressions for your verse and chorus.
  3. Choose a plateau pitch. Many songs start on the tonic chord, and if yours does as well, choose either the tonic note, the 3rd or the 5th as your starting plateau.
  4. Play through your verse chord progression, singing your chosen plateau pitch. As the note “stops working”, move the melody up or down by a note, and keep returning to the plateau whenever it fits.
  5. As your song moves from verse to chorus, try moving to a new plateau pitch. Usually, it works better if the plateau is higher.

A couple of other good examples melodies that use plateau pitches is Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time, from his album The Future, as well Ellie Goulding’s “Lights.” In each example, the plateaus keep changing, and work hand-in-hand with song energy to keep the songs moving forward.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Pingback: Cara Membuat Not Lagu Bila Tidak Punya Basic Ilmu Not

  2. Hey Gary,

    Neat article. I just wonder if I’m the only one who was confused by you calling this idea a “plateau pitch”? If I understand you correctly, you’re describing a pitch that occurs more frequently than other pitches. But because a plateau is a high plain, I thought it meant highest pitch. Perhaps “melodic focal point” is a good enough term?


    • Hi Bryan:

      I think “melodic focal point” gets the point across as well. I call it a plateau pitch because the overall effect is to serve as a basic tonal “level”. Just like a literal plateau which appears to be relatively smooth until you scrutinize it carefully, a melody based on a plateau pitch will move above and below that level, always returning to it. I guess my term is simply a visual aid to describe this concept, and I think of it and “melodic focal point” as synonyms.

      Thanks for writing.

  3. Thanks for the tips, Gary!

    I just had a friend ask me how to create melodies for instrumental tracks. He has no musical knowledge, so does his composing purely by ear and instinct.

    Your 5 steps really help as a framework for creating melodies when someone has no idea where to start at all.


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