Song Melodies: Moving Downward While Moving Upward

For verse melodies, try combining downward-moving melodic shapes with an overall upward motion.

Sturgill SimpsonIn songwriting, you can only ever speak of generalizations. That’s a good thing, of course. Music would be boringly predictable if it meant simply following a set of rules.

We know, for example, that most verse melodies tend to avoid an overabundant use of the tonic (key) note in the melody, saving that feature for the chorus. But Rosanne Cash’s “A Feather’s Not a Bird” does specifically that: a verse melody that dwells on and around C in the key of C minor. Then the refrain that follows gives us even more of that same note. But it works because there’s something hypnotic about that tonic focus.

We also know, by looking at songs from the past 5 or 6 decades, that verse melodies primarily start low and move higher, connecting to a chorus that sits even higher. But “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” does the opposite, giving us the climactic high note a mere two notes in. It works because the long descending line enhances the feeling of melancholy of the subject matter.

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Thinking of verse melodies that start low and move high — always a good thing to consider — there’s another option: create downward moving melodic shapes, which in turn keep moving higher, a line drawing of which would look something like this:

Melodic direction suggestion for a verse


There are a few recent songs that use this kind of melodic idea, and coincidentally, two of them involve turtles. One is “Wild Animals“, by Trampled by Turtles, and the other is “Turtles All the Way Down,” by Sturgill Simpson, which must surely win some award for the most unlikely title for a country tune.

With “Trampled by Turtles,” we get three long melodic phrases, followed by a wordless, “Ooh” refrain that exactly mimics the melodic shape shown in the diagram above.

“Turtles All the Way Down”, gives us four melodic phrases, each of which consists of a standard downward-moving cell, then moves higher, before finally settling lower. But the main feature, the one that builds musical momentum, is the sense of moving upward while the actual melodic shapes move lower.

In that sense, the melody consists for the most part of downward-moving scale-wise passages, interrupted by leaps upward:

Turtles All the Way Down Melodic Cells

Those 2 phrases are then followed by a 3rd that moves higher, and that’s the moving-higher-while-moving-lower characteristic we’re talking about.

So when we say that we can look at hit songs from practically any era and see that the notion of moving upward through a verse melody is generally true, keep in mind that there are lots of ways to achieve that.

If you find that your song melody seems to lack that sense of direction, you’ve got two possible solutions:

1) Inserting leaps upward within the melody. An upward leap injects energy and interest into the melodic line, and works particularly well if the melody uses melodic cells that tend to move downward.

2) Try an upward key change. Melodies that are repetitious and that use a minimum of chords will often benefit from sudden key changes that move everything higher.


Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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