Starting verses on the dominant (5th) note can help entice audiences to keep listening.
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Leonard 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.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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