Once in a while I look back in my blog archive just to remind myself of the kinds of things I was writing about a few years ago. I came across an analysis I did in 2013 of the song “Thirteen”, by Big Star, which they wrote and recorded in 1971.
That’s a song that still takes my breath away. If I had to make a short list of the songs I wish I could have written, that one would be near the top.
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In that analysis, I mentioned the shape of the melodies, and how melodic direction can enhance the mood of the moment. It’s a song about teenage angst, where the start of each verse has a plaintive quality:
- “Won’t you let me walk you home from school…”
- “Won’t you tell your dad get off my back…”
- “Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of…”
And for each of those verse beginnings, the melody starts midrange and then descends. That downward-moving melodic line pulls the mood down with it, and gives each verse a melancholic, introspective feel.
The end of each verse features a lift: an upward-moving series of fragments, and that’s where things change, and we hear something different: hope, looking forward, and optimism:
- “Maybe Friday I can get tickets for the dance…”
- “Rock and roll is here to stay/ Come inside, well, it’s OK…”
- If it’s so, then let me know/ If it’s no, then I can go/ I won’t make you…”
Even that final line, which isn’t explicitly happy, reveals a kind of contentment and personal confidence from the singer that no matter what, he’ll be OK.
Melodic direction is not something that listeners will even be consciously aware of. But without knowing, listeners will feel the mood created by the direction the melody moves.
We hear that same effect in a song like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, which keeps moving ever higher, instilling the song with a stronger and stronger sense of optimism.
It’s worth the time, as a student of songwriting, to listen to some of your favourite songs, and see if and how melodic direction partners up with the mood of the line being sung.
And in your own songwriting, think about how you can enhance not just the mood, but the meaning and subtext of what you’re trying to say in your lyric, by considering the direction of the various lines of melody.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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