John Lennon - Yoko Ono

Discovering the Power of Musical Momentum: John Lennon’s “Imagine”

In songwriting, momentum is that quality of music that causes us to want to keep listening to a song.

Another term for momentum is musical energy, or forward motion. When created and used properly, momentum is a pleasant kind of “tension” in the music, where we sense that something needs to be resolved.

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There are many ways that songwriters can create musical tension. Lyrics, for example, are a great way. Your verse lyric might set up scenarios or describe people or events in such a way that we look for the “answer” in the chorus.

There’s a musical kind of tension, though, that comes about when we manipulate the tonic note. The tonic note is the note that represents the key of the song. For songs in C major, C is the tonic note, and the chord C major is the tonic chord.

The song “Imagine” (John Lennon/Yoko Ono) is a perfect song to demonstrate this concept of building musical tension, which we interpret musically as momentum or forward motion.

How the Melody of “Imagine” Creates Momentum

The verse progression is a simple one, moving back and forth between the tonic chord (C) and the IV-chord (F). The quality of musical tension comes from the melody, which sits mainly on the 5th note of the key, called the dominant note: G.

For the first line of the verse, Lennon’s melody starts on G (“Imagine there’s”), moves up a third on the word “no”, then descends quickly back down to G for the remainder of that first line.

The first four lines of the song do this. Musical tension is being created by the fact that even though the chord progression continues to return to the tonic chord, the melody avoids moving toward the tonic note almost entirely throughout the verse. It makes the note G the most important one, at least for the first part of the verse.

For the latter part of the verse, we do get more occurrences of the tonic note in the melody, but never partnered with the tonic chord.

Imagine - Lyrics, chords and musical energy

So in the verse, we get two things that contribute to musical tension:

  1. An avoidance of the tonic note; followed by
  2. Tonic notes that never happen at the same time as tonic chords.

In most songs, particularly those in the pop genres, tension is followed by release. The tension is created by the avoidance of the tonic note, and even when the tonic note does happen, it’s not often supported by the tonic chord. The release comes from giving the audience just that: the tonic note and chord.

And the release happens in the chorus of “Imagine.” The chorus is made up of four short phrases, and three out of the four of them (phrases 1, 3 and 4) all end on the tonic note, accompanied by the tonic chord.

Imagine - Chords MelodyTension and Release in the Lyric

There’s another kind of contrast, similar to the tension and release effect, that happens in “Imagine”, and you see it when you look at the lyric. The verses all describe scenarios we might see in the world around us, and the only mention of “I”, “me”, “us”, or any other words that make it personal are as observers (“I wonder if you can”, “no hell below us”, and so on.

Then in the chorus, the point of view changes, where Lennon speaks of himself, and we get:

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one;
I hope someday you’ll join us

Suddenly the chorus brings the singer into full view, and makes it all a personal experience. Whenever song lyrics use personal pronouns, the audience can feel a sudden emotional connection, and that connection equates to emotional release.

So there are two lessons you can take from “Imagine” as a songwriter:

  1. See what avoiding the tonic note in the melody can do to create a pleasant sense of musical tension in your verses; and
  2. Think about how the use of personal pronouns within your chorus can help create opportunities for emotional release.

Gary Ewer video - How the Rhythm of a Melody Changes as a Song ProgressesWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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