I’ve always liked R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” but there’s something odd about it. Because most of its melodies and melodic fragments dwell on the 3 notes A-B-C, in the key of A minor, it sounds very much like a drone. Normally, that just doesn’t work all that well for a song; you normally want to hear a bit more from a melody.
But the drone-like sound of the main melody actually fits the contemplative nature of the song lyric. Most of the time when a song features a verse that uses a very constricted melodic range like “Losing My Religion” does, the songwriter relies on a chorus to reverse that idea and give the audience something with more contour.
There’s more to a good song hook than meets the ear. Watch “Song Hooks – Why Hooks Are So Important to Pop Songs“
But “Losing My Religion” doesn’t use a chorus. It’s a verse-only structure. In many, maybe even most, songs that don’t use a chorus, they usually use a refrain, but this song barely does that. So it’s an anomaly in songwriting for several reasons.
If you’re working on a verse-only song, it’ll be a bit risky to try what R.E.M. did with “Losing My Religion.” But that begs the question: What should the melody of a verse-only song be doing? How does it differ from melodies in verse-chorus songs?
Melodies in Verse-Chorus Songs
Most songwriters know that a chorus melody is usually higher in pitch than a verse melody. More specifically, the verse is low, then usually rises in pitch as it approaches the chorus. Then the chorus features the highest notes, and often descends slightly at its conclusion.
The low-to-high range is done so that musical energy builds. Since the human voice displays more emotion when it’s higher in pitch, it makes sense to have the highest notes happen when the song’s most emotional lyric — found in the chorus — happens.
But what do you do if the song is in a verse-only format? Without a chorus, is there any need to worry about melodic range?
Melodies in Verse-Only Songs
Yes, shaping the melody should still be a concern. You should still be trying to start your melody low in pitch, and then rise as you pass its midway point. But the difference is that a melody in a verse-only song should descend as it comes to the end.
In other words, a verse-only melody needs to assume the characteristics of a verse at its beginning, and a chorus at its end.
This applies to chords as well. A verse-only melody can start with interestingly wandering chords, and then moves to a chorus which usually features short, strong progressions. But a verse-only song needs to switch to those tighter, more key-based progressions as it approaches the end of the melody.
It’s relatively common, then, for a verse-only song to exhibit the following melodic shape:
And don’t forget that a song that doesn’t use a chorus can make good use of a bridge section. In fact, it’s a great antidote for a melody that you feel needs a bit more. Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” is a great example.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter