Marvin Gaye

The Secret Power of the Melody: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

The 1960s hit song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine“, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, was a Motown hit for several groups. Gladys Knight & the Pips released it in 1967, and it went to number 1 on the R&B Singles chart.

You’re probably more familiar with the Marvin Gaye version, released in 1968, which became the biggest hit single on the Motown label.

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What makes this song so powerful? There’s something really magnetic about that melody: when you start listening, you really don’t want to stop. In my mind, it’s all about the use of the tonic note.

The Effect of the Tonic Note

In pop music, the tonic note plays a crucial role. It signifies a place of rest: it represents “home.” If your song is in, let’s say, F major, F is the tonic note. And every time a melody gives us that tonic note, we experience the feeling that the melody has “come home.”

Practically all pop music melodies do this, but if you think of the melody for Lennon & McCartney’s “Hey Jude”, you only get that tonic note sparingly. Most significantly, though, you get it at the very end of the melody: “ make it BETTER.

But that’s an example of where the tonic note represents a place of musical relaxation: the end of the melody. The magic of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is that the tonic note does something else: it represents musical power.

In most songs, the verse avoids overuse of the tonic note (especially when it’s accompanied by the tonic chord), and then uses it a lot more in the chorus or refrain, like we see in Dolly Parton’s and Kenny Rogers’ rendition of “Islands in the Stream“, where the verse uses the tonic note only occasionally, but then that note becomes much more important in the chorus.

But in “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, we get the tonic note over and over again, and rather than signalling repose, it represents the confrontation between the two lovers: “You could have told me yourself/That you love someone else..“. The song is in Eb minor (actually Eb dorian), and so it’s the abundant use of Eb that we notice.

And each time we hear that tonic note, it’s like we hear a musical version of “Tell me the TRUTH!” Listen for that effect when you listen to the opening of the verse (tonic note shown in orange):

Heard It Through the Grapevine - Tonic note

In a way, what we’re hearing is the effect of a repeated note in the melody. I’ve written about this before on this blog, how repeated melodic notes have a way of representing strength of opinion: “Repeated Notes in a Melody, and Their Impact on an Audience“.

And when that repeated note happens to be a tonic note, you really feel its impact. You can get almost the same effect by the repeated dominant note.

That “strength of opinion” effect can happen in a quiet but determined way as well. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” gives us that effect with the repeated dominant note at the start of the verse (key of C major, with G as the dominant note.)

For those of you who find melodies hard to write, it’s a good reminder that most good melodies are actually composed of short melodic fragments, and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” shows us that spending a good deal of time in and around one note isn’t a musical cop-out — it’s a musical feature that can add to the strength of the song.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Hooks and RiffsHooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.

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