Verse Melodies: Choose Your Starting Note Carefully

Starting verses on the dominant (5th) note can help entice audiences to keep listening.


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Thad KopecLeonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” is a great example of a song with a simple melody that has a powerful ability to keep you listening. The lulling, captivating feature comes in large part from the fact that the first part of the verse dwells on the dominant (i.e., 5th) note of the key: B in the key of E major.

A tonic note is one that represents the key of your song. For example, the tonic note of G major is G. Starting a verse melody on a non-tonic note like this is very common in most popular music genres, and starting on the 5th note of the key is a particular favourite of Cohen: “Hallelujah” (G in the key of C major); “Closing Time” (D in the key of G major); “Take This Waltz” (F# in the key of B major); and countless others.

The benefit to starting your verse on a note other than the tonic note is that it immediately generates momentum and musical energy. In music, you can define energy by its main quality: anything that provides an incentive to keep listening. A non-tonic note feels pleasantly unstable, making the listener feel that the solid, stable sound of the tonic note will eventually happen. The lack of a tonic note in the melody results in coercing listeners to want to wait for it.

You’ll find that writing a verse melody that dwells on the dominant note often allows you the option of moving up or down from there with relative ease, and indeed Cohen’s music undulates tantalizingly first above and then below that starting note in most of his dominant note starts.

Other songwriters love the mesmerizing quality that comes from “sitting on the dominant.” Give Thad Kopec’s “You Will Know Who I Am” a listen, and you’ll hear the enticing quality of a melody that references the dominant note as an important source of musical energy.

And you can also hear the musical satisfaction that comes from hearing that verse melody eventually move down and cadence on the tonic note. It’s a gorgeous tune, and hope that we hear a lot more from Kopec in the future.

I’ve mentioned mainly verse melodies in this post, because it’s the verse that needs a good amount of momentum and enticement to keep audiences listening until the chorus. You’ll find that chorus melodies feature the tonic note a lot more, particularly toward the latter half of chorus melodies. The tonic note gives a kind of musical release that’s a common feature of choruses.

Offering too much tonic note in the verse can compromise musical energy. So in your verse melodies, look for ways of avoiding too much tonic note. You should find what you’re looking for by starting verses on either the 5th or 3rd note of your chosen key.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Hi Gary,
    I bought your eBook Bundle package. My questions are:

    1. What is the best or most popular starting and ending notes for the verse, the chorus and the bridge? ;

    2. Should more energy be placed on the beginning sections of the verse, chorus and bridge, or the ending sections of the verse, chorus and bridge?

    • Hi Michael:

      In answer to your questions:

      1. There’s no optimum starting or ending note — we know from studying songs that melodic lines in a chorus tend to accentuate the tonic note more so than verse melodies. The benefit to starting on a non-tonic note is that it can help to generate some musical momentum. I’m sure there must be statistics that say which note is the most common starting pitch, but that’s only part of the story. In addition to the post that you’ve commented on, you might give this one a read.

      2. In Classical music, it’s been true that the climactic high point has often happened at about the 2/3 point, but in pop music genres, we find that (at least with choruses), the high point quite often happens right at the start. That’s because the chorus is typically a hook, and that hook is what the songwriter wants to be most noticeable. So a high start gives that hook some prominence. (“Firework” – Katy Perry)

      For verses, high points will often happen later, as they approach the chorus. So it’s typical for a verse melody to start low and then work their way higher. And for song bridges, especially the kind that are meant to provide a climactic moment for the song, the highest notes will happen later, as it prepares to return to the chorus, or to a Verse 3.

      Hope this helps,

        • Hi Michael:

          You’ll find information about chord progressions in Chapter 4 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting.” First, I’d recommend checking out the “The Broad Strokes” section at the start of that chapter. It outlines some of the important points and differences between chord progressions in various sections of songs, particularly verse and chorus.

          Then, you’ll want to read the section called “The Difference Between Strong and Fragile.” That will give you more specifics about the various kinds of progressions and where they work the best.

          Also, I’m very willing to give direct help if you have some issues for which you’d like answers. You can write me by email at gary [at] pantomimemusic [dot] com. If you have a link to a song you’ve been working on, I’d be happy to give it a quick listen and offer suggestions.


  2. Hi Gary, are you saying using the dominant note of the chosen scale over
    the Tonic chord or over any other Chord common to that key ? admittedly it could
    work against The Scales Tonic Chord or the dominant chord of the key It
    could also work over the third minor 7th chord or the 6th minor chord
    the latter two chords also having a degree of tonic

    Sorry if I missed your meaning but thought it was worth mentioning

    • Hi Peter:

      You bring up a good point which I’ve mentioned in other posts but didn’t in this one: the dominant note has different levels of affect depending on the chord that is supporting it. As you mention, it can work well with chords other than the dominant chord. In this post, I was generalizing to say that placing your melody in and around the dominant note will, most of the time, create musical energy by virtue of the fact that it’s avoiding giving you the musical repose we associate with the tonic note.

      I hope that helps to clarify.

  3. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – April 20, 2015 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

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