John Lennon

Song Melody Tricks We Can Take From “Norwegian Wood”

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The melody for John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” is a beauty. There’s really not much to it, but you can argue that the best song melodies are like that: unassuming, almost classical in nature.

Beyond melody, there’s a lot to think about in “Norwegian Wood”: the quiet transparency of the instrumentation, the lyric, the casual vocal delivery, even the choice of time signature (6/8 or 3/4).

But for any songwriter who struggles with coming up with a good melody, there are several melodic “tricks” that you can observe in “Norwegian Wood,” and so it’s a good one to analyze.

What stands out to me?

1. Starting on the dominant note.

The dominant note is the 5th note of a scale. “Norwegian Wood” is in E major, and Lennon’s first melodic note is a B. That’s in his upper mid-range. From there he nudges upward (“I once…”), before moving lower. There’s a pleasant instability to starting on the dominant note — it has a way of making us want to hear where it’s going to move, so it entices us to keep listening. Leonard Cohen also wrote a lot of melodies that started on the dominant (“Hallelujah”, for example, if you ignore the pick-up note).

2. Repeating melodic ideas.

The first line of the melody takes a basic 4-to5-note shape, and creates a phrase by repeating it twice, moving it downward each time.

Melodic structure of "Norwegian Wood"

That repeating cell is an important part of the melodic structure. In most good melodies, repetition, either exact or approximate, is a vital part of helping listeners make sense of the tune, and makes it easier to remember.

3. Contrasting ideas.

The verse component of the melody is comprised mainly of stepwise motion: no repeated notes. This is followed by the short contrasting bridge section which then uses pitch repetition as a main organizing feature.

Repeated notes in "Norwegian Wood"

Melodic contrast gives the listener something new. But more than that, a contrasting melodic idea has a subconscious effect of making the audience believe that the original idea (in this case, stepwise motion) is going to make a return, and there’s a greater incentive to keep listening.

4. Using the range of the melody to partner with the lyric.

Lennon chooses a key that keeps his voice from getting too high or too low. This works well because it’s mainly a story song, narrative in nature. It doesn’t have a chorus that would typically express more emotion.

By keeping everything more or less centred in his own range, we’re more likely to want to listen to the details of that story without being distracted by vocal gymnastics.

5. Using a 3-Part Structure.

Designing a melody to be in 3 parts is certainly not rare in songwriting. But most often the middle section will take the melody higher, as we hear in a song like, for example, “If You Leave Me Now” (Peter Cetera).

In “Norwegian Wood”, the middle section stays in the same basic range as the first section. The inclusion of McCartney’s backing vocals a 6th above the melody give the impression that the bridge melody is pitched higher, and so we still get the build of vocal energy that most B-sections give us.

Conclusion

The point is not that “Norwegian Wood” shows us how all great melodies should be written. Rather, it shows how important structure — any structure — is to the success of all good melodies.

In your own songs, do a quick analysis just like you see written above. Do you see repeating patterns? Does the nature and feel of the melody match the mood of the lyric?

Every song will be different, and so don’t necessarily expect that everything you see in “Norwegian Wood” should necessarily apply to your own songs. But the main lesson we can take from this analysis is that every song needs something that makes it more likely that people will remember it and be able to hum it.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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5 Comments

  1. The repeating motif in this song is called a “melodic sequence.” It is found in many songs such as:

    The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby
    The Beatles – Across the Universe
    Stan Getz – Girl From Ipanema
    Nat King Cole – Nature Boy
    Dolly Parton – Jolene
    Cream – White Room
    Merle Haggard – Mama Tried
    Hank Williams – Settin’ The Woods On Fire

    • No, it’s not a melodic sequence. A sequence requires not just that there’s a repetition of a basic melodic shape (as we see in “Norwegian Wood”), but that the interval pattern is the same, which we don’t get in that song. Most of the songs you mention in your list are not examples of melodic sequences. A sequence would also require the repetition of a musical phrase, but the repeating figures in “Eleanor Rigby” are just 3-note shapes that get repeated, not an entire phrase.

      There are songs that do feature melodic sequencing. A well-known recent one would be Train’s “50 Ways to Say Goodbye

      -Gary

      • The last two instances of the repeating motif in Norwegian Wood form a sequence:

        “Isn’t it good,
        Norwegian wood”

        Eleanor Rigby:

        “rice in the
        church where a,
        wedding has”

        For repeating motifs to register as sequences, they only need the following:

        -Minimum of three notes
        -Exact rhythm pattern
        -Contour/inflection points to be in the same relative direction in each previous or succeeding instance of the sequence. No need to be the exact same semi-tone intervals

        Some interval variances will happen naturally if the melodies are staying in key and not introducing any chromatic or accidental notes. The above songs all contain at least one instance of a sequence that will technically register as one. Chapter 9.8 of “How Music Really Works” explains in more details: https://www.howmusicreallyworks.com/Pages_Introduction/Introduction.html

        The upcoming book “SongMatrix: How Songwriting Really Works” will also explain how to use sequences strategically in songwriting: https://www.songmatrix.com/

        • We seem to be using different definitions of what a melodic sequence is. At best, most of the song examples you give could be considered “modified sequences,” in the sense that they show approximate repetition (shape) of the melody. A modified sequence still has the requirement of attempting to copy on a different note level the basic construction and intent of the original phrase, and I think that’s where I would respectfully differ. Approximate repetition is not necessarily equivalent to sequencing. (I think you make a good case regarding Eleanor Rigby, though, now that I look more closely at that one.)

          It’s true that a sequence does not need to be exact intervals. There are “real” sequences which do replicate the intervals, and “tonal” ones that move the melody to a different note but are diatonic transpositions, so the intervals will be different.

          But the phrase you mention in “Norwegian Wood” (“Isn’t it good/ Norwegian wood”) simply isn’t a sequence using any definition I’ve ever come across. Sequences have been around in music for centuries, and there has always been a considered difference between moments of approximate repetition, and sequencing, which is a more deliberate attempt to replicate the structure a melody on a different pitch level.

          But as I say, I think we’re using different definitions of what sequences are, and perhaps we can agree to disagree. 🙂 I do very much appreciate your thoughts on this.
          -Gary

          • Definitely admit that sometimes definitions and minutae can be a little distracting from the main point of our agreement, which is that repetition of melodies and motifs whether they are exact sequence or closely related is a very effective technique that more songwriters ought to use 😉

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