The Dominant and Tonic Notes: Creating Forward Motion in Melodies

Designing melodies that use the dominant and tonic notes to create forward motion


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Green Day - Oh LoveBack a couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about Taylor Swift’s current No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together“. The point of the article was to describe a way of writing a verse melody that dwells in and around the dominant (i.e., 5th) note of your chosen key, then switching to a focus on the tonic (i.e., 1st) note for the chorus. So that you don’t think this is at all something uncommon that only Taylor Swift does, the current no. 1 hit on the Billboard Rock Songs Chart is Green Day’s “Oh Love“, and though the two songs have little in common, they both use the same dominant to tonic construction.

“Oh Love” is in Ab-major, and uses a verse melody that moves in and around the dominant note of Eb. That overabundance of the dominant note has the main purpose of building intensity. It sounds “pleasantly unsettled” as each musical phrase begins and ends without a hint of tonic note.

The chorus then moves the focus back to the tonic note. Each phrase starts on the tonic, moves upward in an arc toward the dominant note, moving back down toward the tonic.

So just like “We Are Never…”, we get a song that avoids the tonic note in the verse, and then uses it constantly in the chorus.

I mentioned 5 tips and ideas for writing melodies in this way in my earlier post, and you may want to re-read those.

You might want to experiment with this idea by trying something slightly different: find a focus note for your verse that’s not a dominant note. For example, you could try creating a verse melody that moves in and around the 3rd note of your key. So try this:

  1. Strum an F chord, and set up a rhythmic pattern.
  2. Sing an A over the F chord.
  3. Create a melody that moves away from and back to that A, but avoid singing F.
  4. Find a couple of other chords that accommodate the A note. For example you might create a simple F-Dm-Eb-F progression. On the Eb chord, you’ll want to move to either a Bb note or G in your melody.

Those 4 simple steps may be enough to allow you to start creating something simple but catchy for your verse. As you move on to your chorus, you’ll want to switch to the tonic note and chord F as being the main focus of your musical phrases.

No matter what note you choose to focus on for your verse, you are fulfilling a basic songwriting principle that I talk a lot about in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, which is that verses tend to avoid tonic notes and chords, while choruses use them a lot more.

That dominant-to-tonic construction principle is actually part of the contrast principle which states, in rather basic terms, that songs without contrast risk being boring.


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