For many songwriters, getting a catchy melody for your song happens as the result of improvising melodic ideas over a chord progression. If that’s your normal process, it’ll usually work well for you. But improvising ideas should always be seen as a first step to getting a final version of a melody that really works.
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In particular, it’s worth the time to check and compare the range of your verse and chorus melodies. Here’s one way to make a visual representation of the ranges of your various melodies.
- First, take any of your recent favourites songs (one that uses a verse-chorus design), grab your guitar or keyboard and a pencil, and listen closely to the verse melody. Try plucking the melody; you may need to listen several times to get this step right.
- Draw a line that roughly represents the shape of the melody, and put a few lines of lyric down around the line. If your favourite song is “Someone Like You”, you’d notice that the verse wobbles around the same few notes, with just a few inflections, so you would draw a line that looks something like this:
- Now, try to determine the highest note in that verse melody, then find the lowest. In “Someone Like You,” the highest verse note is F#4 (the F# above middle C), which happens a couple of times. The lowest note is the F# below middle C, and as you can see from the diagram, the melody explores more lower notes in its second half than it does in its first half: a bit of an anomaly in most songs.
- Next, listen to the chorus melody, sketch the rough outline, and find the range. You’ll come up with something like this, with the low-to-high range encompassing an octave-and-a-half, A3 (the A below middle C) up to E5 :
- Draw 2 boxes that represent the range of the verse and chorus melodies, placing them so that they overlap where their ranges overlap, like this:
- So what is this diagram showing us? First, it’s demonstrating an important principle in popular songwriting, which is that chorus melodies tend to sit higher in pitch than verse melodies. In some songs, the range difference is very small, but likely to be there nonetheless. You’ll also notice that there is usually an overlapping of ranges. In other words, many of the notes found in a verse are also found in the chorus, with the addition of lower ones at the bottom of the verse range, and higher ones at the top of the chorus.
Every song will have a diagram that looks different, of course. But the general principle of a higher box for the chorus is crucial to the generation of musical energy for your song. The difference between verse and chorus ranges does not need to be great. In most songs, you’ll notice that the top of the verse and chorus boxes will be very close, with the chorus sometimes only being a note or two higher.
Now the next step is to do the same process with your own completed songs, particularly ones that you feel aren’t generating the interest or musical energy you’ve been hoping for. If that chorus box isn’t higher than the verse box, it won’t take much to fix that problem. Just as in “Someone Like You”, the high note that pops out on the line, “Don’t forget me, I beg” is all it takes to give your chorus a distinctive moment.
In the case of a song where the verse and chorus melodies are the same, you’ll need to look for other ways to generate the extra chorus energy, such as adding backing vocals, or building the instrumentation in the chorus.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.