When it comes to a song’s melody, there’s a standard kind of “formula” that practically all songs in a verse-chorus format use:
- Verse: Start the melody relatively low in pitch, and move higher as it comes closer to the chorus.
- Chorus: Keep the chorus relatively high in pitch.
If the end of the verse is considerably lower than the start of the chorus, you might consider inserting a pre-chorus section where the melody rises, to help better connect the verse and chorus. The perfect model song for this is Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
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But what do you do about songs where there’s no chorus, just a series of verses? Since pitch range is a relative thing, and you only have a verse, does this mean that what the verse does regarding range in those songs is unimportant?
No, it’s still important, but the ups-and-downs of a melody, and how you contour it, all need to happen within that verse. Generally, the standard melodic shape of a verse-only song is to start low, hit a high point somewhere after the middle, and then end low.
Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold“‘ shows a slight modification on this standard shape, and it’s worth taking a closer look.
So here’s the standard design for a verse-only melody:
A song like Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” roughly follows this map. With “Heart of Gold” you also find yourself noticing where the melody steps (i.e., moves from one note to the adjacent one), and where it leaps (moves from one note to another note by skipping several notes).
In “Heart of Gold”, the melody starts with a prominent leap upward of a sixth: G3-E4 (“I want to live…“), then a leap downward: D4-A3 (“I want to give…”). The E4 note is the highest note of the melody.
These two leaps define much of the emotional power of this melody: the leap upward sounds like a pleading, then the answering downward phrase sounds like a resolution.
And because that upward leap happens several times, we keep hearing this E note several times. That’s significant because it means that we’ve got a melody that doesn’t really have one climactic high point… we’ve got several, all, in a way, competing. That’s the slight modification I’m talking about:
So melodically, we don’t see one discernible high point. But climactic moments often involve more than melody. You can make a moment in a song more powerful — more climactic — if you consider the melody along with some other feature, like the chords.
In “Heart of Gold”, the high E keeps happening on the IV-chord (C, in the key of G), until that final leap upward, where the high note happens on the I-chord (G). And because a I-chord is musically more powerful than a IV-chord, it adds a bit more power to the melody when the high note is coupled with the tonic chord.
So we actually do have a climactic moment, but it requires us to consider more than just the melody.
Neil’s melodic design still honours the standard expectation of what a verse-only melody should give: a melody with a good sense of contour that pairs up nicely with the lyric, and then a quick moment near the end of the melody that serves as a kind of climactic focus.
In your own verse-only songs, think about what you might do to create your own climactic moment that might use something other than the range of your melody. It could be the chord choice as in “Heart of Gold”, but could also be:
- Instrumentation: a busier, fuller moment near the end of the melody.
- Volume: a louder moment.
- Lyric: a poignant word or phrase near the melody’s conclusion.
As you work and study this aspect of songwriting, listen to as many verse-only songs as you can, and analyze what you think is happening to give the song a point of focus — a climactic moment, and add those ideas to your own songwriting toolbox.