Melodies Aren't Just Notes Following Notes – They're Shapes

Audiences hear and remember shapes, not actual pitches.

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Gregory Alan IsakovIt’s better to think of good song melodies as being a collection of melodic shapes, rather than just a line that spins outward from a starting point. We know that repetition has a lot to do with what makes melodies work well, but exactly is being repeated? Sometimes it’s the actual notes, but sometimes it’s a shape that’s being repeated.

In music, a phrase is a short section of 2 or 4 bars of music. If you find it hard to identify exactly where phrases begin and end in your song, you’ll likely see it more clearly if you look at lines of lyric. Generally, each line of lyric represents a phrase.

Larger phrases can be made up of smaller ones. For example, the first line of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a short mini-phrase: “There’s a fire starting in my heart.” A longer phrase can be seen when you pull the first two lines of lyric together:

"There's a fire starting in my heart,
Reaching a fevered pitch and it's bringing me out the dark.

What makes that phrase so attractive is not just the structure of the musical line itself, but the fact that the entire shape (i.e., the phrase) is repeated. So if you see the difference, musical beauty is not just a succession of nice-sounding notes, it’s the repetition of nice-sounding musical phrases.

Sometimes repetition is not exact — it’s taking the basic direction of a line and allowing it to repeat. A great example comes from a new album by singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov titled “The Weatherman.” In his song “Saint Valentine,” some phrases are almost exact repeats of others (as we hear in the first two). Sometimes, though, repetition is just a general melodic direction. Each phrase in “Saint Valentine” takes a similar downard-moving shape.

That repetition of the downward shape acts as a kind of musical glue that pulls the entire song together. In that sense, downward moving melodic phrases is a type of motif that works in the background to give the melody a sense of cohesion and strength.

Just because one musical phrase moves in a particular direction does not mean that all your phrases must do that. For example, you could try reversing the direction of the first phrase to create a nice sense of upward/downward symmetry, like Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song.”

What people remember when they recall melodies is not notes themselves – it’s phrases, musical shapes, and how they interact with other shapes within a song.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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