Bach Would Have Been a Killer Songwriter

J.S. Bach’s ideas of how good music works still apply today, and (believe it or not) work amazingly well for today’s pop music.


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Handwritten musical scoreFor all intents and purposes, it’s easy to think of a melody as a line if, once it starts moving either up or down, it keeps moving in that direction for at least a few notes before changing direction. In other words, good melodies have a sense of purpose, of shape, and of design. The fact that a melody sometimes moves up and then down may seem like a silly observation, but it’s actually more than that: many good melodies make an attempt to balance the up with the down.

J. S. Bach (1685-1750) was not the first or only composer to establish that as a basic principle of melody, but the beauty and apparent ease with which he created some of the world’s greatest melodies made him famous for it. The neat thing is, balancing up with down in melodies never went out of fashion. Even in today’s pop music, incorporating symmetry in melodies still arguably creates the best tunes.

Not only that, but Bach’s other principles of creating a melody to sit within a tonal framework of about an octave-and-a-half at most, having a “climactic moment”, and ensuring that a melody sounds like it has a goal are also present in today’s best music.

Want a few examples? Back in 1933, in the years before we had “pop” music (the term “pop” came to be used to describe that genre only in the 1950s), American songwriting icon Irving Berlin composed “Heat Wave,” made most famous by singer Ethel Merman. Listen to it a few times (the melody line starts at 0’45”), and you’ll discover that the characteristics of good Baroque-era music were also present here, including the balancing of rising and descending melodic phrases:

  • We’re having a heat wave..” (an upward moving line)
  • ..a tropical heat wave..” (downward moving line)
  • ..the temperature’s rising..” (upward)
  • isn’t surprising..” (downward)
  • ..she certainly can can-can” (mix of up and down back to the tonic note.)

And there’s more. Besides balancing the up-and-down movement of the melody, there’s an easily identifiable climactic moment – a high note that appears nearer the end than the beginning of the melody, in the phrase, “It isn’t surprising”.

And more: the melody sits within what composers would call a tonal framework. A melody’s tonal framework is the lower and upper boundary within which most of the notes can be found, with few if any notes straying outside. All melodies, no matter how they are constructed or how many notes they use, will have an upper and lower range of course, but the kind of melody I am talking about fully explores that upper and lower range, creating contour and melodic design.

A song’s tonal framework is defined usually by notes from the tonic chord. In “Heat Wave”, Berlin uses a tonal framework of dominant-dominant, which is to say that the lowest note used is the low dominant pitch, and, with the exception of that climactic note in the latter half of the melody, the highest note is the upper dominant pitch.

And still more: each melodic phrase (that is, each short snippet of melody) appears to have a melodic goal that’s strongly linked to a harmonic goal. The melody begins by establishing the home key, and each time a phrase ends, it’s sitting on a note from either the tonic chord or the dominant chord, the two most crucial chords of most tonal music.

Not all good melodies these days necessarily incorporate all of these characteristics, but you’d be surprised how many do. Here are some notable examples of song melodies that show them beautifully:


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