John Mayer's "Paper Doll" – Why the Melody Works So Well

Repetition and contrast provide melodic strength to “Paper Doll”.


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John Mayer - Paper DollJohn Mayer’s “Paper Doll”, from his recent “Paradise Valley” album (released in August, 2013), is a beautiful tune that shows songwriters how melodic motifs can help pull various elements of a song together. This pulling together of elements starts with an intro that gives us a hint of the verse melody to come.

It also shows how contrast, particularly contrasting direction, is a major factor in strengthening a song melody.

“Paper Doll” is in the key of G major. Let’s start by looking at the formal design:

Formal design for Paper Doll - John Mayer

The entire song works beautifully, and as you’ll hear, the melodies for the verse and chorus are built on a rather restricted tone set, and particularly so for the verse: G A B and C.

The intro presents those notes first:

Paper Doll Intro

The notes are then rearranged to form the verse melody. That kind of connection, where notes in one section are reordered to form the next one, is something that usually goes unnoticed by the average listener, but provides a kind of musical glue that gives the song a special sense of cohesion. So not only does the intro present the key, tempo and mood of the song, it also provides important melodic information:

Paper Doll - Verse melody

You’ll also notice that the general direction of the melodic shape of the intro is downward, reversing to an generally upward direction for the verse.

For the song’s chorus, the melodic range moves higher – a typical characteristic for most songs. You’ll also see that the general melodic direction reverses once again, moving mostly-downward:

Paper Doll - Chorus Melody

So the dual constructs of motif and contrast work hand-in-hand to provide a brilliant sense of unity for a song melody as it transforms from intro to verse and chorus.

“Paper Doll” provides several melodic construction ideas for songwriters to try:

  1. Provide an intro that takes verse and/or chorus notes, and presents them in a different order. This means writing your intro after the song is complete, which is often a good idea anyway.
  2. Try alternating basic melodic direction from one section to the next. If your verse presents melodic phrases in a mainly upward-moving shape, create an intro before it, and chorus to follow it, that move in a generally downward direction.
  3. Don’t encumber your songs’ melodies with too many notes. The benefit of restricting the number of melody notes is that shapes are easier for the listener to notice. And remember, audiences will notice shapes, not specific pitches.
  4. Use a return to your song intro as a connector that gets you from chorus back to verse. In that way, the intro doesn’t just introduce the song – it introduces the verse melody every time it happens.


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  1. Pingback: FEATURED LINK: John Mayer’s “Paper Doll” – Why the Melody Works So Well | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

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