When I listen to a song that’s spent a good deal of time at the top of the charts, I’m often amazed by how simple its structure is, how simple the chords are, and how few notes the melody actually uses.
Sure, there are the exceptions. Elton John’s songs, for example, tend to use long melodies and chord progressions that stray far beyond basic three-chord choices. But you should take it as a bit of encouragement for you that it’s quite possible to write a song that keeps things far simpler.
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The Police’s “Every Breath You Take“, the top song of the year 1983 on the Billboard Hot 100, is a good example of the power of simplicity in songwriting. The chord progression is a standard I-vi-IV-V progression in Ab major, sometimes resolving to I (Ab), sometimes to vi (Fm).
The bridge (starting at 1’23”) moves into a new key area — not unusual at all for bridge sections. And even though the choice of moving to the flat-VI chord is a bit rare, the entire bridge consists only of two chords: bIV (E) and bVII (Gb).
If your attention goes immediately to melodies, you’ll probably be surprised (as I was) just how much mileage he gets from very few notes.
The entire verse melody is constructed by only four notes: Ab, Bb, C and Db:
For the bridge, the choices for melody notes move considerably higher, but the melody becomes even more restricted, mainly choosing from E, F# and G#.
What does all this mean for songwriters? How are you able to generate interest in a song if the melodies are constructed so simply from so few actual notes?
It should serve as a reminder that listeners don’t hear notes, they hear patterns and musical gestures. The melody for “Every Breath You Take” makes use of simple rhythms (on the title line, for example), as well as simple syncopations (on “Ev’ry bond you break, ev’ry step you take”), and everything gets placed upon a simple but extremely engaging guitar-bass-drums riff. You can definitely make a case for saying that fewer notes makes melodies easier to remember.
In fact, it seems apparent that the simplicity of the design is a major factor in the song’s appeal: it’s number 84 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and is the most played song in radio history.
If you’re purposely writing a song that uses simple melodies over simple chord progressions, remember:
- You need something enticing that draws listeners in. Listening to the instrumental intro of “Every Breath You Take” shows you how simple that intro is, but it’s very attractive. The extra-long play-off at the end, similarly constructed, shows just how much mileage you can get out of something so simple.
- Simple melodic ideas need enticing rhythmic interplay with the backing instruments. Use standard rhythms and simple syncopations. (If you want to read more about this, check out this article from last years: “The Importance of Rhythm in a Good Song Hook.”
- Basic, tonally-strong chords usually work better than complex ones.
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