Repetition, along with a carefully-placed climactic moment, allows melodies to make a strong connection to listeners.
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If you look at some of pop music’s greatest melodies — and by “pop” I mean the broader definition of anything written in the past century that was meant to appeal to the masses — you’ll find that repetition of ideas appears to be the most important feature.
When repetition is rampant within a melody, we might call it an earworm melody – something that gets in our heads and stays there, repeating itself in (often) an annoying sort of way. But even for melodies that we consider effective but not necessarily earworms, repetition is often a crucial component.
That’s true to varying degrees. A classic melody such as Arlen & Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow,” written in 1939, shows how repetition works beautifully if the musical ideas are repeated approximately — not exactly. The main feature is an octave leap that then steps downward. That octave keeps getting modified to something smaller, such that when you look at a line drawing of it, it appears to be a large ripple, with little “echoes” that happen afterward:
The repetition of melodic cells makes melodies memorable, but also makes them attractive to us as listeners. We like the musical security that comes from hearing things that we think we’ve heard before, even if (some might say especially if) the repetition is only approximate.
But what are we to make of a beautiful melody such as the one Paul McCartney wrote for “Michelle“, from The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” album? A line drawing of that melody reveals a mostly wandering tune, where repetition is a much subtler characteristic:
In fact, comparing the melodies for “Over the Rainbow” and “Michelle”, you reveal the two most important characteristics that allows melodies to resonate strongly with listeners:
- short melodic cells that are constantly repeated in various ways, and/or
- melodies that feature a prominent climactic moment.
“Over the Rainbow” features the first characteristic, while “Michelle” demonstrates the second. The climactic moment that occurs in the middle of the verse is subtle. What makes us want to keep listening beyond the verse is the progression that ends it: Bdim – C; we feel “forced” to keep listening.
It’s in the bridge that follows where we get a strong climactic moment, on the note G. All taken together, that gives “Michelle” the following melodic shape:
So the melodic shape gives us a climactic moment that happens near the beginning of the bridge section. We get pulled along by the chord progression which provides an open cadence — one that needs some kind of resolution — at the end of the verse, and so we keep listening. Once the climactic moment happens, the melody begins a gradual descent until it’s back to the range we hear at the start of the verse. It’s beautifully done, musical symmetry at its best.
To create beautiful melodies that are going to resonate with listeners, you’ll find that you either have to make good use of repeated elements, or provide a strong climactic moment somewhere in the second half of the melody, or possibly both, as we hear with Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill“, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now“, and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”
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