Checking the Resting Points in a Verse Melody

By “resting point”, I’m talking about spots in a melody, usually the end of a musical phrase, where the note is usually longer than the ones that precede it. In music theory terminology, a resting point is synonymous with the cadence.

Essential Secrets of Songwriting Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle gives you lots of help when it comes to writing song melodies. Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you how lyrics and melody work hand-in-hand, and “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to add chords to that melody you’ve just created.

So let’s define things a bit more precisely. A phrase is a line of music. You’ll find that in many songs, the end of every line (or at least most lines) of lyric is the end of a musical phrase. Sometimes that phrase can sound incomplete, needing more to make it sound finished, like the end of the first line of lyric:

“Load up on guns, bring your friends” (“Smells Like Teen Sprit” – Nirvana)

Other phrases sound more complete, as if you could actually end the song then and there. You’ll notice these more complete-sounding phrases at the end of a chorus, for example:

“I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way” (“Born This Way” – Lady Gaga)

Verse Melodies, and Resting Points

When you compare a verse and chorus melody, you’ll notice a couple of important differences:

  1. Even though both verse and chorus melodies feature a lot of repetition, the verse melody has more of a wandering quality, moving up and down in an attempt to partner up with the various moods of the verse lyric.
  2. Verse melodies usually give us the song’s lowest pitches, sometimes then moving higher as it seeks to connect smoothly the chorus.

And then there is another important difference:

Verse melodies often avoid the tonic note, while the chorus tends to feature it a bit more.

A tonic note is the note that represents the key of the song. So if your song is in E major, E is the tonic note. There is a sense of finality that comes from that note and chord. When you hear the tonic, whether it’s the tonic note or tonic chord, you’ll find that it offers a strong sense of “home.”

That sense of arriving at home is great in a chorus, particularly at the end, but often less great in a verse. Why? In a verse melody, you want a lot of forward motion — momentum — so that your audience wants to keep listening.

So the more you use the tonic note in a verse, the greater the danger that you’re going to sap the forward motion out of your music. The tonic note and chord makes the melody sound like it’s trying to end.

Now, let’s look at those resting spots I mentioned earlier. Every song melody is comprised of phrases, all or most of which end on a long note. If you’ve just written a new song, check your verse melody, and the end of each line of lyric (i.e., the ends of phrases) for the following characteristics:

  1. The end of each phrase in your verse melody should, more often than not, end on a non-tonic note. If your song is in C major, most of the time you want your melody at the end of each phrase to not be the note C.
  2. If any of your verse phrases end on a tonic note, you’ll want to accompany that note with a non-tonic chord.

Some examples to study:

  1. In “Born This Way” (key of F# major), the melody note at the end of the first phrase is F# – the tonic. But it’s accompanied by a IV-chord (B), and so gives a necessary sense of forward motion.
  2. In “Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars (key of D minor verse, and F major chorus), the end of every line of verse lyric ends on G, always giving us the sense that the music must continue to give us eventually something more final.
  3. In “Royals” – Lorde (key of D major), each line of verse lyric ends on a non-tonic note, until the final phrase (“No postcode envy”). The last note of the chorus finally gives us a clear tonic note-tonic chord finisher.

If you find in your own songs that the verse never seems to be able to get going, or at least never gives you the sense of energy and forward motion that you’re hoping for, it’s time to do a bit of analysis. Check the long, resting notes that happen in your verse.

If you find you’re overusing the tonic note, find ways to change the chord progression so that it doesn’t coincide with the tonic chord. That may be all the change that’s needed to keep motion in the music.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Guitar, paper & pencil, smartphoneYou’ll be amazed what a bit of music theory knowledge will do for your songwriting. If you’ve been scared away from theory because it’s boring, it’s time to check out “Easy Music Theory by Gary Ewer.” Twenty-five enjoyable video-based lessons, complete with worksheets, quizzes and answer sheets, so you don’t even need a teacher. Starts at the very beginning, and progresses through to reading complete musical scores!


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