Building Song Energy by Avoiding, then Using, the Tonic Note

By saving the tonic note for the chorus, you create a pleasant sense of unrest in a verse, which equates to momentum.


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Robin Thicke - Blurred LinesIf you ask someone to sing a line from a favourite song, they are more than likely to choose a line from the chorus. That shouldn’t be surprising, since chorus melodies use more repetition and a simpler design than verse melodies. But verse melodies have an important responsibility: of building anticipation and momentum toward the chorus.

So what is being anticipated? In most verses, you will find that the tonic note – the note that represents the key of the song – is used far less than in a chorus. By avoiding that tonic note, you create a pleasant sense of unrest, both harmonically and melodically.

Most of your listeners won’t ever be able to pick out the tonic note, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they aren’t aware of its effects on the power of music. That goes for most aspects of music. Listeners don’t usually have the vocabulary to explain what they are hearing, but they certainly feel the effects.

When you write verse melodies, do what you can to avoid use (or, perhaps more specifically, overuse) of the tonic note. When you do use it, try placing it on weak beats within a bar (i.e., beats 2 and 4), or at least avoid having the tonic note and tonic chord happen at the same time. In verses it’s far better to have melodic shapes playing with and centring on the 3rd or 5th of your chosen key.

By doing that, the verse acquires a strong characteristic of forward motion, because people subconsciously “know” to expect the tonic note and chord to play an important role at some point. That kind of anticipation creates momentum, and pushes music forward.

When you reach the chorus, design your melodies there to feature the tonic note and chord more often, especially happening together. That results in a splash of song energy that strengthens the formal design of your music and creates a natural energy boost.

“Blurred Lines”, by Robin Thicke ft. T.I., and Pharrell, is a good current example of this songwriting technique. The verse melody focuses mainly on the 3rd of the key (the note B in the key of G major), and the 5th (D), with the tonic note happening only occasionally and incidentally. This keeps momentum and song energy intense, which finally gets released on the first notes of the chorus, where the tonic note (G) becomes an important feature.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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