Songwriting Principles Are Often Clearer In Older Songs

Sometimes you’ll find that studying songs from a genre not your own is a really great way to expand on what you do. Songwriting principles usually apply across genres, and hearing a principle demonstrated in a different genre can act as a kind of metaphor for your own.

The same thing happens when you study songs from a completely different era. It’s amazing what you can learn from songs that are 60 years old or even older. In fact with older songs, some songwriting principles are clearer, more obvious, and uncluttered by today’s production techniques.

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When it comes to understanding, for example, the principles involved in how the rhythm of a melody can affect how people connect emotionally to it, you can hear it perfectly demonstrated in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the musical “Carousel” from 1945.

The principle involved is this: when melodic rhythms slow down and simplify, we feel a deeper sense of emotion from the lyric. In “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the main rhythmic motif is two shorter notes followed by a long note:

Rhythmic example 1

You also get that very simple motif reversed: a long note followed by two shorter ones:

Rhythmic Example 2

As you listen to this powerful melody, you become aware that there’s little else going on rhythmically; almost the entire melody is comprised of one or the other arrangement of short notes and long notes.

But you’ll notice that the closer the melody gets to those iconic words, “You’ll never walk alone”, the more the shorter notes disappear and we hear the long notes by themselves, propelling the melody higher and higher. (“Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart…).

Those longer notes have one simple effect: the building of emotional energy. The longer the singer dwells on those notes, the more power we pick up and feel. It’s a simple concept, very simply but effectively demonstrated.

That concept is not new. We hear it in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” (“Messiah”, 1741) in the final “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” part of the piece. We hear it in the long, drawn out “Oh-oh-oh-oh” in “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (Harbach/Kern) (1933).

We also hear it in the simplification of rhythm that happens toward the end of each verse of “It’s Only Make Believe”(Jack Nance, Conway Twitty) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Paul Simon).

And we notice its power in songs from practically every genre of every era.

In your own songs, you’ll want to think of this concept as you try to build a satisfying level of emotional energy and power. It really doesn’t matter if you’re writing country songs or metal, stretching out and simplifying rhythms will always help build passion and power.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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