Rush - Tom Sawyer

Expanding on the Idea of a Song’s Key By Considering Scales: “Tom Sawyer”

Most of the time you’re likely to work out most (or even all) of a song without thinking a lot about what key it’s in. That’s fair enough; if a song sounds good, it is, and it can work well even if the actual key is something you haven’t thought about.

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But an ability to identify key can be a powerful songwriting tool for a songwriter. You can, for instance, change key (modulate) to different closely related keys within the song, and those key changes can add considerable musical energy to that song. That becomes an easier tool to use if you have an ability to identify key. (If you want to improve your key identification skills, read this article: How to Know What Key Your New Chord Progression Is In.)

There’s one other thing about key that can be a powerful songwriting tool, and it’s this: changing how a key feels by playing around with scales within that key.

A great song to demonstrate what I’m talking about is Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, Pye Dubois).

The song key moves around, and over its 4-1/2 minutes we get to hear E major, E mixolydian and E minor, with changes sometimes happening very quickly. You’ll notice that being able to move around to various keys has a big impact on the mood of the moment.

Scales Within a Key

In addition to key, though, you’ll get some great ideas if you concentrate on scales that make up the melodic ideas. The song starts with a single E in the bass. The opening melodic idea sits mainly on the note D, deliciously avoiding identifying the key for us.

Once Geddy Lee starts moving that melody around, he fills in the notes of E mixolydian by singing short 3-note scale passages, two in a downward direction, and the third moving upward:

Tom Sawyer - Melodic Shapes

Because all of these notes are in close proximity, we tend to notice the perfect fifth formed by the low note (D) and high note (A), but we also notice the notes that fill in that fifth:

D – E – F# – G# – A

So even though this section is in E mixolydian (E major with a lowered 7th), we get a strong “Lydian” modal scale impression that’s laid on top of the key. The Lydian mode sounds like major, with the fourth note of the scale raised a semitone. (If you need more info on Lydian, read this blog post: “Lydian-Mode Chord Progressions, and How They Work.“)

It’s important to note that the key here is not D or E Lydian. At this moment, the key is E mixolydian, and that key will offer its own mood. But in addition to whatever the mixolydian key does for the music, we get strong impressions from the scales that are worked into the melody.

Using This Idea In Your Own Songs

If you’re keen to try this idea of creating melodies that pull the music away from the key you’ve chosen, you simply need to isolate a small section of melody, much the way I’ve isolated a small section of the verse melody for “Tom Sawyer.” So perhaps take a look at the first few bars of your verse melody.

Now take a look at:

  • the lowest note of that melodic fragment;
  • the highest note;
  • all the notes you’ve used between the lowest and highest note.

That will give you an idea of the kind of scale that an audience is likely to subconsciously notice. And that scale is going to partner up with the key that you’ve chosen, and the chords that you’re using.

Playing around with chords, key and scale in this way is a wonderful tool for altering or enhancing the mood that your song conveys.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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