In the last post, we saw that contrast in modern pop music has a lot to do with melodic shape and chords, and not so much to do with loudness or performance style. In other words, over the length of a 3-to-4-minute song, we’ll see great contrast in melodic shape, and/or major-against-minor kind of chords.
There’s one more thing to say about melodic shape, and it’s this: the stronger and more energetic the music, the less important it is to show contrast in your melody.
When we talk about contrast in a melodic shape, we mean that throughout a song, some parts (typically the verses) will linger low in pitch, while other parts (typically the choruses) will move much higher in contrast to the verse.
A great example is Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’“, where the chorus melody sits an octave above the verse. The following diagram gives a rough approximation of the shape and range of the melodies:
Now compare that song to something that’s faster and louder, with a more aggressive performance style, and the need for this kind of melodic contrast diminishes.
Take, for example, a new song, “Josephine“, by Frank Turner:
What we see is this: in songs that are louder and use a more aggressive performance style, melodic shapes even out, to the extent that there’s not often a lot of difference between the range of the verse and the range of the chorus.
It shouldn’t surprise us too much that we’d see this kind of thing in pop music genres. Pop music, at its very core, is improvisatory in nature, and favours the basic feel of music over almost all other elements.
And once a feel rises to being one of a song’s most important elements, other elements (including the contrasting of melodic ranges) becomes less vital.
In a sense, that makes the feel or groove of a song a kind of default, where in the absence of any other strong component, the feel is always there. In “Josephine”, you’d get the same song even if you took away the melody and lyrics, and just played it as a melody-less instrumental.
That, incidentally, was at the core of the jury’s decision regarding the plagiarism case of “Blurred Lines/Got to Give It Up”. The feel of Marvin Gaye’s song was so strong that it became, whether you agree with the decision or not, the essential core of the song.
As a songwriter, if you see that your melodies just linger around the same notes from beginning to end, your automatic fix might be to find ways to raise the chorus or lower the verse melody, to create what you see as the requisite contrast. It’s what I usually advise.
But another solution might be to simply:
- pump up the volume;
- increase the tempo; and
- move all melodies higher in the singer’s vocal range.
By doing so, the feel of the song takes centre stage, and it takes the pressure off the other song components.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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