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.
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.
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.
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.