If you’re familiar with Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”, you will know that it is comprised of a 32-bar long melody in two 16-bar parts which repeats, over and over again, with the only change being the orchestration of the melody. There is no other musical development. No change of key, no change of tempo, no competing melody or other sort of musical development.
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In the world of music, it stands almost alone. It’s hard to come up with any other musical work that is written this way — one melody that repeats seemingly forever. It’s musically very rare, but also very risky.
Risky, because audiences like when music changes, and a changing instrumentation isn’t often enough. Whether it’s classical music or a pop song, we like:
- songs with 2 or 3 different melodies (verse, chorus, perhaps bridge), all sitting in different ranges.
- songs where the chords of one section pair up with — but often differ from — chords of another section.
- songs where musical phrases (the equivalent of sentences) are of differing lengths.
How a songwriter contrasts all of these elements is the challenge. Do it well, and you’ve got a song that succeeds. Do it poorly, and you don’t!
The differing melodies and ranges, changing chords, evolving lyrics, alternating phrase lengths, different rhythm choices… these are all important ingredients of musical momentum. As a melody creeps higher, for example, we subconsciously fixate on the rising lines, wondering where it’s going to hit its pinnacle.
When we hear chords move away from the tonic chord, we subconsciously listen for the return of that chord. When we hear lyrics that describe certain emotional events or situations, we subconsciously want to hear the chorus, because we know that’s where we’re going to experience the strongest emotional power.
In short, musical momentum is all about the future. It’s about what now means for the future.
When we talk about contrast in music, that’s what we’re really talking about. We’re describing the way what we’re hearing at this moment is going to affect what we’re about to hear a few seconds from now.
That’s songwriting at its best. When you can write songs that demand a listener’s attention, such that they feel they must listen to hear how something is resolved, or where something finally ends up, you’re using momentum the way that the classical masters did.
Sometimes song succeed for reasons we can’t easily determine. It sounds great, even though we can’t put our finger on why it’s so great. The greatness of a song often comes down to momentum, and how the writer made you want to listen to hear where something is headed.
For every song you write, take a few listens and focus on a different element of your song each time. Try to figure out if you’re making good use of melodic range, chord progression contrast, lyrical development. Are you enticing people to keep listening? Is there a sense of direction in your melodies? Does your song evolve?
These are the elements of music that take your song from mundane to extraordinary. And the best songs out there make the best use of this kind of musical momentum.
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