Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Using Melodic Direction to Act as Musical Glue

Though for the best part of my music career I analyze songs and pull them apart to better understand them, I’m just like any other consumer of music: I want to be entertained.

That means when I listen to music, I’m not always critiquing. Sometimes, like you, I just want to sit back and enjoy what I’m listening to, and not always feel that I need to analyze everything. But that being said, whenever I hear a song that I really love, one that just seems to work, I find myself wondering: WHY is this song so good? What makes it work?

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From the first time I heard Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” (Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne), I noticed a powerful feeling of cohesion. Every phrase in that song seems to lead naturally to the next one. How did they work in that strong sense of musical glue?

Part of it is immediately obvious: the melody works upward from verse to chorus, and that’s a very common trait for most great songs. And when successive song sections move upward, you feel musical momentum building, and that keeps people wanting to listen.

But there’s another bit of musical construction in “I Won’t Back Down” that’s not immediately obvious, but one that I think is every bit as important: each musical phrase, whether you’re talking about long phrases (several lines considered together) or even just short ones (separate lines), you become aware of a constant downward direction of the melodic fragments:

Tom Petty - I Won't Back Down

And if you keep thinking of melodic lines through the entire song, you hear the same thing — the consistently downward-moving melodic line.

So why is this important? (And I’d argue that it’s perhaps even more important than the chorus that moves higher than the verse.) It’s mainly because when we hear a musical motif — an idea that gets repeated over and over again — we hear it as an important structural element, something that helps each musical phrase communicate more effectively with all the others. That is, in fact, what a motif does.

A motif is simply an idea. It could be a bit of rhythm that we hear, like the rhythmic syncopation in the bass and guitar in Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (the bit behind the line “Though his mind is not for rent, Don’t put him down as arrogant…“, for example. Or it might be a melodic idea as we hear in “I Won’t Back Down.”

We might hear that idea change over time: the melodic shape stays the same, but the actual notes change. But the constancy of that shape throughout “I Won’t Back Down” is why we feel that all the phrases lead so effortlessly one to the next.

It didn’t have to be that way, mind you. They could have composed a verse with downward-moving phrases, and a chorus with upward-moving ones. That would still have worked. We’d still pick up the importance of the shape in the verse, and see that the chorus is simply an inversion of that shape. (McCartney uses this technique in “Penny Lane.”)

If you feel that your songs don’t create forward motion in the way that you hope, one way of troubleshooting the song might be to take a closer look at the various melodies you’ve used. If there’s no motivic connection at all between the different tunes, you might try a bit of rewriting to provide the musical glue that makes it all work just a bit better.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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