Genesis - Wind & Wuthering

Downward-Moving Verse Melodies, and When They’re a Good Idea

When you look at a typical verse melody, it’s probably most common that you’ll notice that the typical direction is upward, particularly if you compare the first few notes to the final few before the chorus hits.

It’s time well spent to look deeper, though, at how good verse melodies move, because where the voice sits in a melody has a lot to do with the kind of musical energy we pick up.

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All melodies move up and down, so I’m talking about looking at the general direction. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is probably typical of most verse melodies, which starts in a kind of midrange, then moves up and down, but mainly up as the verse comes to a close, in this case connecting to a short refrain.

AmericaSome verse melodies start in a low to midrange, moving higher and giving us a kind of climactic high point just past the midway point, then ending lower, like “Sister Golden Hair” (Gerry Beckley, recorded by America, 1975).

Adele - HelloIt’s hard to find verse melodies that move mostly in a downward direction with little upward direction. We definitely get that mainly downward direction when we hear the verse Adele’s “Hello” (Adele Adkins, Greg Kurstin). But we’re also aware of the upward bump that happens just before the chorus.

A better example of what I’m describing might be the beautifully melancholy “Your Own Special Way“, written and recorded by Genesis on their 1976 album “Wind & Wuthering.”

Genesis - 1978The range of the melody is quite restricted, mainly encompassing approximately a 5th. The first two phrases dwell on the note E (key of C major), then it gradually descends. As I say, the range is restricted, but the overall impression we pick up is a gradually lowering melody.

I mention this because it seems counterintuitive to write this way; we might expect, since choruses are usually more energetic than verses, that a verse melody might normally rise to meet the higher range of the chorus.

But for “Your Own Special Way”, we hear the verse melody sounding as though it’s actually relaxing toward the end, and then we pick up a sudden increase in musical energy as the chorus starts.

The reason it works so well, just as it works so well in Adele’s “Hello” is that downward moving melodies tend to accentuate melancholy, introspective lyrics. We pick up the relaxing, sighing nature of the melodic lines, and it pairs up nicely with sorrowful or pensive lyrics.

If you’re looking to use melody to enhance the melancholy nature of your lyrics, here are 3 things to think about as you construct your verse melodies:

  1. Starting midrange is a good idea. By starting your downward-moving verse melodies in the middle of your range, you give yourself room to move lower.
  2. Think general direction. No melody moves exclusively downward, so expect that even though you might want your melody to move downward, you’ll still want to allow for occasional bumps upward. (The verse of “Sister Golden Hair” is a good example).
  3. Vocal quality must pair up with the mood of your lyric. Remember that melodic direction is only one part of the formula for creating a melancholy melody. How you sing a melody is a vital part of getting the right mood. Don’t leave it all up to your downward moving melody.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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