Fleetwood Mac - Don't Stop

Song Melodies: Thinking About Your Starting Note

Because good songwriting usually starts with improvising ideas based on your instincts, you may not have given much thought to what note your tunes start on. The chord you choose, in most circumstances anyway, limits your choices to 3 notes: the root, the 3rd or the 5th.

Understandably, there’s no rule that governs what the best starting note of a melody might be, or else songwriting would be a pretty boring activity. But there is something to be said for the following:

  1. In verse melodies, you can begin the building up of musical energy by avoiding the tonic note.
  2. In chorus melodies, you can allow the music to reach an energetic pinnacle, as it were, by featuring the tonic note more often.

The tonic note is the note that represents the key of your song. Music that’s in G major, for example, has a tonic note of G. When we hear that note in a melody, it displays characteristics of strength and musical repose: you’ve arrived.

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That, in a nutshell, explains why it works so well in a chorus, and why it often is beneficial to limit its use in a verse. By starting your verse on a non-tonic note, you keep the music from sounding too much like the song has reached its musical target.

Regarding verse melodies, there’s no reason that you would start on the 3rd more than starting on the 5th. Many songwriters would be surprised to know that what note you start on has a lot to do with your own melodic style. In that regard, many aren’t even aware that they have a melody style. We usually use the word style to describe the overall sound and production of a song.

Leonard Cohen liked to start many of his melodies on the 5th: “Hallelujah“, “Suzanne“, “Closing Time“, etc. The advantage of the 5th as a starting note (e.g., a melody starting on a G while strumming a C chord) is that there is a pleasant sense of musical instability associated with that note. It compels the listener to focus on what’s going to happen, and that usually keeps people listening.

Starting on the 3rd has the advantage of being able to easily move by step to either adjacent note, almost no matter what chord follows, so starting on the 3rd makes for good stepwise melodies. Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” (Christine McVie) is a good example.

In any case, you can worry a lot about what note to start a melody on, but as I say, there’s no rule. When it comes to the tonic note and chord, you might want to consider the following tips:

  1. Avoid overuse of the tonic note in your verse melodies.
  2. If you do use the tonic note and it sounds a bit to “final” for your tastes, try to accompany the note with a non-tonic chord. In other words, if your verse seems to feature a C in the melody while the chord C is being played, see if you can rework your progression to use Am or F, or even Dm7 at some of those moments.
  3. Lots of tonic note in a verse is OK if those notes happen on “weak” beats: beats 2 or 4 of a bar.
  4. There’s no reason that you must feature the tonic note a lot in a chorus. Most chord progressions should target the tonic chord, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the tonic note must similarly keep reappearing.

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