You may not know the song “Comme d’habitude“, written by French songwriters Claude François and Jacques Revaux, but you’ll no doubt know “My Way,” a big hit for Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and others. Paul Anka acquired the rights to the melody (for $1), and then penned a new English lyric that brought the song to a much larger audience.
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It’s also possible that you might think “old” songs don’t have a lot to say to today’s songwriters. But let’s take a look at what “My Way” tells us, and then see how relevant it is:
- “My Way” has a two-part structure, often thought of as verse-chorus, but really it’s a long verse with a first half (repeated) and second half. (How we label these parts, by the way, is more-or-less irrelevant; one can get hung up on it. What’s relevant is that it’s a 2-part melody.
- It’s got a lovely (though gentle) climactic moment in the first half (“I’ve lived a life that’s full…”), and then descends back down to the lower tonic note.
- It’s got an even-more-lovely climactic moment in the second half (“I ate it up and spit it out…”). (I choose to believe that that’s the line that sold the song to Sinatra!)
- The melody makes great use of sequencing, which means that it takes a short bit of melody (“And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain”), and then repeats it one step higher (“My friends, I’ll say it clear…”, etc).
- It’s got a lyric that anyone who’s tried to do anything in life can identify with. The words are at times conciliatory, at times angry, but ultimately dripping with a kind of “deal with it” confidence.
“My Way” is the poster boy for 60’s adult contemporary music. But forget that for a moment, and just think about the way the song is structured, the way its instrumentation unfolds, and the amazing imagery of the lyric.
And then you’ll discover that we’re still writing songs that do this. We may not be using this same template, but we’re still trying to connect to audiences in the same kind of way.
The melodies may be two-art verse, verse-chorus, or some other variation, but the structures achieve the same thing: a gently upward-moving melody, climactic moments in those tunes that grab our attention, instrumentation that partners with it all, and — probably most importantly — lyrics that connect to us in a personal way.
- A Thousand Years (Chistina Perri)
- Us (Regina Spektor)
- For Emma (Bon Iver)
- Cry Me A River (Justin Timberlake)
- Family Portrait (Pink)
You’ll notice that the melodic structures today may be a bit less predictable. For example, it’s not as easy in “For Emma” to identify specific climactic moments as it is in “My Way.”
But for any song to make a personal connection, the listeners has to imagine themselves singing it. In ballads, whether 60’s adult contemporary or today’s rock/pop music, the lyric needs to take centre stage.
Once you’ve got that lyric working (common, everyday words, lots of emotional imagery), your melodies, chords and instrumentation all need to pair up with that lyric. Then you’ve got the makings of something that truly connects — something that’s got hit potential.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.