Sting - Roxanne

The Wandering Nature of Verse Melodies

Take a listen to the following songs, and pay particular attention to the verse melodies:

These songs were all hit songs in their own time, and each song is known for their very strong chorus hook. For each of those songs, in fact, it’s the chorus we remember about them, and not necessarily the verse before it.

But that’s certainly not to say that the verses of those songs are unimportant, and that’s the odd paradox about most songs: it’s the chorus that needs to jump out and grab attention, but the verse in front of it is what unwraps the song for the listener, and it needs to do that well.

Here is what you’ll notice about the verses for each of those songs:

  1. The melodies have, to varying degrees, a wandering quality. In other words, for each song the verse encompasses a larger range than the chorus that follows.
  2. The verses feature repetition, but to a lesser degree than the chorus. Some songs, like “My Little Town”, use almost no repetition in their verse, but most verses, despite the wandering nature of the melody, still use repetition as an important organizing feature.
  3. The harmonies (chord choices) give the impression (again, to varying degrees) of wandering away from, then back to, the tonic chord. The verse progressions tend to be longer, and explore key areas a little further afield from the tonic chord. That’s as opposed to what choruses usually do, which is to use shorter progressions that stay solidly in the tonic key.

It’s fair to say that the verse offers more opportunity for the adventurous songwriter to craft something interesting. But there’s a danger that a wandering melody may fail to make any sort of connection to the listener. If you find that your verse melodies are a bit boring, here are some tips to help you keep the interest level up:

  1. Make sure that repetition plays some role in the organizing of your verse melodies. In much the same way that choruses use repetition (though as mentioned, choruses tend to use it more), it’s more likely that listeners will lock in to a verse melody.
  2. Don’t allow chord choices to wander too far afield. If you choose chords that move too far away from the key of your chorus, listeners tend to get a bit confused and lost, and that’s when boredom sets in. A verse should never move further than a closely related key. If you’re not sure what constitutes a closely related key, take a look at this graphic. It shows you keys, and the relative major/minor which represents their closest related key.
  3. Move verse melodies upward as a way to entice the listener. If you find that your verse seems to lack that quality of “begging for the chorus”, try adjusting your verse melody to move upward as it makes a connection to the chorus. Not all verse melodies do this, but moving upward is a great way for a melody to draw attention to itself.
  4. Keep verses from getting too long. “Don’t Stop Believin'” uses a very long verse melody, and it works because it is loaded with musical energy, and lots of starts and stops. But a long verse melody has the potential to make the audience feel a bit lost. As you work to fix a verse, check that it’s not simply too long for no good reason.
  5. Make a proper identification of the problem with a failing verse. You may feel that your verse melody that isn’t quite right, but after looking more carefully, you may eventually find that the lyric itself is failing to connect with your audience. Use your instincts, and trust them. It’s probably fair to say that in a verse, a powerful, effective lyric is more important than a powerful melody.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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  1. Your image list relative minor/majors as closely related key. Is moving the circle of fifth one notch too much?

    In theory eg moving from C major to E minor should work ok. The root is only a third away and only one one accidental is different.


    • Hi Masi:

      In most songs, verses might start by sitting in a closely-related key in the circle of 5ths that’s not a relative major/minor, but that’s far less common than starting in the relative minor. I can think of many songs that start in the relative minor, but I can’t bring to mind any that start, for example, in E minor and then move to C major for the chorus.

      Where you would see the music move into a closely-related key that’s not a relative major/minor situation, however, might be in a song’s bridge. That’s because the song up to that point has usually made a particular key very obvious, and it sounds right to have a bridge stray from that key. So even though I’d still say that the relative major/minor is still the alternate key of choice in a bridge, you’d be more likely to see a songwriter try something else, based on the circle of fifths.

      Thanks for your good comment, Masi.


  2. Pingback: The Wandering Nature of Verse Melodies - The Hit Songwriting Formula | The Hit Songwriting Formula

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