“Paint It Black”: Connecting Song Melodies

Most songs consist of several sections that are all woven together to produce one coherent piece of music. The trick is to get all those sections to move seamlessly one to the next.

Seamlessly, in this context, doesn’t mean that you move from section to section without realizing it, of course. In that sense, it’s like walking from one room to the next in a beautiful house. You obviously know when you’re leaving one room and entering the next, but there is a crucial feeling of connection. Though each room is different, there is a pleasant aspect of similarity or homogeneity.

Music is the same. As you move from one section (verse) to the next (chorus), there is an aspect of partnership that’s very important: it “sounds” as though the verse belongs to the chorus, even if we find it difficult to say exactly what produces that sense of belonging.

One way to create that feeling of connection in music is to do this: design a section that has, on its own, the same characteristics that you see in the entire song. It’s easiest to describe this by thinking of melody.

Thinking About Melodic Shape

All song melodies have their own distinctive shape, which might look something like this:

Climactic High Point

That diagram shows a song melody that generally sits low in pitch in the verse, moves higher in the chorus, with a high point somewhere in that chorus, and then moves down again.

There’s a nice aspect of connection that comes from taking that inverted-V shape, and making that the shape of something smaller, like perhaps just the first phrase of the melody. The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” gives us a good idea of how this can work. Here’s the first phrase of that song; note how that melody goes from low to high and back to low again:

Melodic shape, Paint It Black

The chorus is similar in shape, even though it’s actually flipped over:

Paint It Black, melodic shape - chorus

So if you look at the entire melody, from the opening right through to the line, “until my darkness goes”, you get a general shape that looks like this:

Paint It Black, Shape

So you’d describe the verse as moving higher, then lower, and the chorus as moving lower, then higher. And it’s not the sort of thing that listeners will notice.

And come to think of it, it may not even be the kind of thing that songwriters will notice. When you create that kind of relationship between verse and chorus (where the chorus sounds like an inversion of the verse), it simply “sounds good.”

The real question here is this: how can a songwriter use this information to write better music? Here are some ideas:

  1. Do a rough line drawing of your song’s melody, from verse through to the end of the chorus (or to the end of the verse if there is no chorus).
  2. Do a rough line drawing of your song’s verse, and compare it to the drawing of the entire song.
  3. Do a rough line drawing of your song’s first phrase, and compare it to the verse, and then to the entire song.

Do you see similarities? Perhaps you’ll find that your first phrase looks like a mini drawing of your entire song, and that’s a good thing. Or perhaps you’ll find, as with “Painted Black”, that one section looks like the inversion of the one that came before it. Also good. Those similarities make a melody easier for the listener to remember.

Keep in mind that some songs are not “about the melody.” Your lyric may far surpass what your melody is doing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you find that your melody sits in and around the same pitch for most of its length, you’ll need other song elements to step forward and be more significant.

But if you want your melody to connect to the listener in important ways, and to be something that’s easy for them to remember, you need to put this kind of microscope on it, and find ways to make these kinds of connections. It contributes to the overall quality of your music, and helps turn your song into a coherent musical journey.

Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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