Considering the Note Your Melody Starts On

How much thought do you give to the note you choose to start your song melodies on? It may seem trivial because from that first note you can move in any direction you want, and so it may not feel as though it matters a whole lot, once you’re a few notes in.

But I think that your choice can have a kind of psychological effect on the listener, once you’ve paired it up with the chord that is supporting it.

Writing a Song From a Chord ProgressionIf you like starting songs by working with a chord progression, you need to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It will give you the pros and cons of this songwriting method, and help you create songs that really work!

Most songs will start with a 3-note triad, meaning that it’s likely the melody will start on one of those three notes. If the song starts on a I-chord in C major, the melody will likely start on C, E or G.

With some songwriters, you see a pattern emerge if you look at several of their songs. For example, Leonard Cohen often favoured starting on the fifth note of the chord, like we hear in “Hallelujah.”

I think he liked starting on that note for certain songs because there’s a certain kind of pleasant “instability” to that note… it wants to move, but you can’t really tell which way it wants to go. Cohen moves up from the fifth in “Hallelujah”, but McCartney moves down when he starts “Hey Jude” on the fifth. You could argue in McCartney’s case that he sings that fifth over no chord at all, but it makes you wonder… does the psychological effect of starting on the fifth apply in retrospect, once the chords become heard?

There’s a nice, relaxed feel to starting a song on the third. The third of the chord is the note that tells us the chord’s quality (major or minor, or something else). And you can choose to “step off” that note, or perhaps leap away from that third as Elton John does when he leaps down off the note at the start of “Candle in the Wind.”

Starting on the tonic note offers a kind of strength to a melody, just as starting on the tonic chord can do. As in The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” (John Phillips, Michelle Phillips), there is a certain kind of power that can come from highlighting the tonic note in this way.

It is possible to start on other notes, of course. Sometimes that opening chord is very brief, serving as a kind of pick-up chord to the actual one, like you hear at the start of Art Garfunkel’s vocal on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Paul Simon). He starts on the seventh of a V-chord (“When you’re”), which quickly moves to the third of the tonic chord (“weary..”)

It’s not very common, but you can start a song on the seventh of a chord. It’s a kind of unstable way of starting, but it adds a ton of character to the music. A great example of starting a melody on the seventh of a chord is Rush’s “Tom Sawyer“, in which Geddy Lee starts on the 7th of the opening E minor chord.

In Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” (Eric Clapton, Marcy Levy, George Terry), the melody starts on a G — the seventh — while the underlying chord is A7.

Sometimes you can overthink things, but it may be worth some time to look back at the songs you’ve written just to see if you are favouring starting on one note or another. If you find yourself always starting on the tonic, for example, it may be time to change things up.

I think the effect of that very first note is probably just psychological, but the positive psychological effect of music is what good songwriting is all about.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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  1. Hi Gary! This is a great topic that is also related to the subject of “accented non-chord tones.” The first melody of “Yesterday” by the Beatles starts on the 2nd note (G) of the scale (Fmaj) but over an accented position of the tonic chord (F) which makes it stand out because it’s not part of the chord. This is a great technique (also called appogiatura) that is used not only in the beginning, but throughout the melodies of many songs (purposely on beats 1 or 3 within bars, rather than just passing tones). Examples of such songs:

    The Beatles – Yesterday
    The Beatles – In My Life
    Percy Sledge – When A Man Loves A Woman

    Used right in the beginning of a song when the melody starts is a great way to grab listener attention!

    • Yes, those are great examples of non-chord tones. As you say, they do a great job of grabbing the listeners’ attention.

  2. I find it handy to remember that God Save the Queen starts on the tonic, O Canada on the third, and The Star-Spangled Banner on the fifth.

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