Dolly Parton

What Melodic Direction Does to a Song’s Emotional Energy

The average listener may think that a song melody moves up and down in a kind of random way, but for the best songs, there does seem to be value in thinking about a melody’s direction as something purposeful and important.

I’ve said in many blog posts (like this one: “How Making a Line Drawing of Your Melody Makes It Better“) that if a line drawing of your melody looks random and chaotic, it’s hard for listeners to even remember it once it’s finished.

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Creating a melody that seems to have a clear design allows for a healthy dose of predictability and structure. I think a great example of what I’m talking about is in Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene.” For every section of the song, we hear a melody that starts low, moves high, and then descends.

That up and down isn’t an accident; each phrase incorporates that shape. In the opening verse, the starting line moves gradually upward, and along with it we hear emotional tension rising. There’s nothing in the lyric that places more emotion in the rising section, or less emotion in the descending section. But the purposeful up-and-down of the melody builds emotional contrast into the lines in a very important way:

RISING LINE (Increasing emotional tension):

Your beauty is beyond compare
With flaming locks of auburn hair

DESCENDING LINE (Diminishing emotional tension):

With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green

So the importance of a predictable shape in your song melodies isn’t just that it offers structure. It does even more: it allows what might otherwise be a fairly constant level of emotional effect from the lyric to subtle fluctuate up and down along with the melodic shape. It pulls listeners in, and makes them feel something.

So as you write your song melodies, give some thought to what you think a purposeful design might do. The up and down choice, by the way, doesn’t need to be symmetrical as we hear in “Jolene.” It could spend more time in the upward part, and come down fairly quickly, as we hear in the verses of Genesis’ “Follow You Follow Me,” and the long, stepped style of melody like we hear in Lennon & McCartney’s “Hey Jude.”

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Hi Gary! Jolene also uses an ascending melodic sequence in the melody, repeating the same motif at different pitches. The same technique is used in (using country songs for example’s sake) Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and “Take These Chains” by Hank Williams (or Ray Charles’ version). The Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life” also uses this (non-country example). The Beatles are a goldmine in noticing those sequences (whether ascending or descending)! Eleanor Rigby, Nowhere Man, Norwegian Wood, Penny Lane, and lots more!

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