Good music isn’t determined by adherence to rules; it’s more a case that the best songs are guided by certain musical principles. One of those guiding principles is that chorus melodies should normally be pitched higher than verse melodies.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” describes several kinds of song hooks, and how good songwriters often layer those different kinds within the same song. Buy it separately, or get it as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
But in fact, that principle is a result of two other underlying principles:
- Good songs use musical contrast as a way to keep listeners interested.
- The musical energy of most songs fluctuates upward and downward, also as a way to keep listeners interested.
If this idea of fluctuating musical energy is new to you, take the time today to listen to several songs, from any genre, and make mental note of when you feel the music is becoming more energetic, and where you think it’s becoming less so.
As you think on that, make note also of when melodies move up and when they move down. I’m willing to bet that for every 10 songs, 8 or 9 of them will show the following characteristics:
- Verse melodies tend to start low in the singer’s range compared to the range of the rest of the song.
- Chorus melodies sit high in the singer’s range compared to the rest of the song.
- Vocal rhythms are shorter and sometimes more complex in a verse, becoming simpler and locked in to the basic beat of the song in the chorus.
- Instrumentation is fullest in the chorus, boosting the sense of musical energy from what’s perceived in the verse.
So for most songs, the fluctuating musical energy starts low, then moves high, and toggles back and forth until the song is finished. Sometimes the musical energy of the intro itself is part of the formula: it may start with high energy, then diminish for the start of the verse (“Call On Me” – Lee Loughnane, recorded by Chicago), or may start as low as the verse: “Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson).
The danger in having a chorus melody lower in pitch than the verse, or even just sitting in the same range as the verse, is that you’ve missed the important opportunity to build musical energy. You’ve also missed the obvious opportunity to create musical contrast.
Since verse lyrics typically describe situations while chorus lyrics give an emotional response, it makes sense to have the verse start lower in energy — and melodic range — than the chorus.
Moving the melody up and down is the easiest way to create musical energy. There are other ways, such as building instrumentation and playing around with key, tempo, and backing rhythms. So it is possible to have a chorus melody sit in the same range as a verse melody, as long as something is taking responsibility for building and relaxing musical energy.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
The perfect combination: “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” and a Study Guide. Dig into the songwriting manuals that thousands of songwriters are using to polish their technique, complete with a study guide to show you how to progress through the materials. Comes with an 11th FREE ebook: “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process”
Hi Gary! Does this principle mostly apply to songs with longer choruses? I notice quite a few songs that seem to be exceptions, but they often have shorter choruses or refrains:
Harold Arlen – Somewhere Over The Rainbow
The Beatles – Nowhere Man
The Beatles – In My Life
It seems that there are certain notes in a song that act as repeating melodic climaxes that let the audience know what the range is, in comparison to the lowest point or tonal center. A lot of songs will start off by hitting the highest note of the song within at least 8 bars (after the intro), and then later hit the same point again in the chorus, even if the chorus tonal center sits a little higher. An exception I found where the highest note is not in chorus is Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” The chorus has great energy, but doesn’t contain the highest point.
You mention 3 very interesting examples. I’ll start by reiterating that good songs don’t work because they follow rules. There is no rule that says the chorus must be higher than the verse. There is a principle that says that choruses should typically be more energetic than the verse that precedes it. The most common way that a songwriter achieves this boost in energy is to move the chorus higher in pitch. But there are other ways songwriters can do this. One way would be to have a prominent leap upward in the melody. The leap, even if the entire chorus is lower in pitch, might give the perception of higher energy, and so then the principle is adhered to.
Taking the songs you mention, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Nowhere Man” are atypical examples: they are really just a long melody, with a contrasting section to follow it, and neither of those sections is easily labeled as a chorus. If anything, those two songs show characteristics more typical of using a chorus-bridge design. “Nowhere Man” sounds like a chorus, and the bridge section (the section that meanders a bit, tonally speaking: “Nowhere man, please listen…”) uses an upward leap toward its end that injects a bit more energy, as bridges often do. Similarly, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” has a chorus-like start, and then a bridge-like section to follow.
But the most important thing about all of this is: for every principle you can name that guides the writing of songs, you can make a rather comprehensive list of all the songs that work well despite not following that principle. So it shouldn’t surprise us that we can name dozens of songs that don’t seem to have a higher chorus.
Thanks Gary! The recent article you posted about “principles vs random success” also is very helpful on the subject. Cheers!