If you’re not sure what’s meant by a phrase, think of it as a part of a sentence up to a comma or a period, where the sentence seems to pause, either temporarily or permanently, like this 2-phrase unit from Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening”:
Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village, though;
In music, you get a similar feeling of pausing at the end of phrases, like with Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”:
When are you gonna come down?
When are you going to land?
Whatever happens in the phrases of a melody is what builds or dissipates musical energy. If each phrase of a melody sounds like the one previous to it, you might get the sense of musical energy staying still, perhaps like the opening phrases of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”:
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
As you know, in “Hallelujah,” the lines that follow those move upward in pitch, and rising pitch is one of the most effective ways we have of building musical energy in a song. There are other ways we can build musical energy of course, including building instrumentation, intensifying rhythm, and so on.
But range is a good one to think about. While the way “Hallelujah” moves constantly upward through the verse is a very common songwriter’s technique, you can also achieve a nice sense of energy build by pausing the upward movement of the melody, and then jumping up again.
Sigrid’s 2017 hit song “Don’t Kill My Vibe” is a good demonstration of this. I mentioned this great song in a previous post (“Properly Preparing the Chorus Hook“), but I mention it here again because it’s a nice demonstration of how temporarily moving a verse melody to lower notes allows the build afterward to be more effective.
You’ll notice that the first two phrases use an identical melodic idea:
You shut me down, you like the control
You speak to me like I’m a child
Most of the time, you’d hear a 3rd phrase that repeats this idea, with perhaps a slow rising in pitch happening at the end of that 3rd phrase; ultimately, you’ll want the verse to connect smoothly to the chorus.
But in “Don’t Kill My Vibe”, the 3rd phrase moves downward, not upward:
Try to hold it down, I know the answer
The 4th phrase generally repeats what happened in the first 2 phrases. But the fact that the 3rd phrase moves lower allows the return of the original pitches in the 4th phrase to sound more energetic, as if a build is happening.
Using Range to Build Song Energy, Simplified
If this seems overly analytical, here’s a simplified way of doing something similar in your own songs:
- Create a short musical phrase to start your verse.
- Repeat that phrase for the second phrase.
- Create a new, third phrase that dips lower in pitch.
- Create a 4th phrase that repeats (exactly or approximately) the first phrase.
To make this work well, you’ll want to then write a chorus that sits higher in pitch than what you wrote for the verse.
The benefit to allowing the 3rd phrase to dip lower is that you’re able to simulate a range build between phrase 3 and phrase 4, and that helps you to use range as a way of building energy while keeping the entire verse contained within an easy singing range.
Using range in this way is just one method at your disposal for manipulating the musical energy of your songs. If you want to see how you can manipulate chords to build energy, read “Building Musical Energy With a Dominant Pedal”
Thousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle to polish their songwriting technique. Every aspect of how to make a song better is covered. Stop wasting time — take your songwriting technique to a new level TODAY. Ten eBooks, plus a free one: $37 USD (Immediate download)