In music, a melody that exhibits a kind of “arch shape” is a natural one that really works. Sometimes that arch shape — where the melody starts low in pitch, rises in the middle, and then descends again, is really clear and obvious, like the melody for Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line”:
And sometimes it can be less obvious, like the melody for Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” (Peter Cetera), where the melody is long, and we’re talking more about sections of that melody showing the higher/lower aspect.
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In any case, you’ll notice that arch shapes keep appearing in songs, whether we’re talking about looking at an entire melody, like in “If You Leave Me Now”, or even just little fragments of melodies, as you see with U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Just give that song a listen, and see if you can tell how many times an arch-shape, even just approximately, happens.
Why Arch Shape Melodies Are So Popular
So why does an arch shape seem so popular? It has to do with musical energy: starting a melody low, then moving higher, builds musical energy. As it hits a high moment and then reverses and lowers, the energy that’s accumulated is allowed to dissipate.
That up-and-down energy pattern is a crucial part of musical success, and it doesn’t matter what genre you’re talking about. Generally it’s up-and-down, not so much down-and-up, but you see that as well, in the opening of the chorus of “Man In the Mirror” (Siedah Garrett, Glen Ballard).
The reason that up-and-down is generally preferred is that it does a better job of emulating the actual energy level of a song over its length. Verses tend to start with a lower level of musical intensity, and then move to something more robust in the chorus, moving down again for the next verse.
In any case, whether it’s up-and-down or down-and-up, fluctuating melodic directions is just one way that contrast plays an important role in successful songs. Melodic direction is simply one manifestation of the contrast principle at work in a song.
See how many of these other contrasting characteristics show up in your own songs. They don’t all need to be there, of course, but every song needs to see at least some of them:
- Chord progressions (and keys for that matter) that start mainly minor, and then move to mainly major.
- Lyrics that start mainly descriptive of things and/or events, and move to something mainly emotional.
- Instrumentation that starts small and transparent, and then moves to something fuller and more intense.
- Vocal treatments that start with a single voice, and move to being accompanied by full backing vocals.
- Melodic rhythms in the lead vocal that start with more intricate rhythms, and then move to something simpler and more tied to the beat.
Try this: take any song that you’d call a favourite, and listen to it several times, focusing on each one of the individual features listed above. How much of anything in that list is true for that song? I’m willing to bet that you’ll see that every successful song has at least 3 out of the 5.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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