If you think about melodies that are considered “beautiful”, you’re usually talking about ones that move generously up and down rather than ones that sit mainly around one or two notes.
If you were to make a short list of songs that have what everyone seems to think of as beautiful, there’s another aspect you’ll notice: mostly, they’re ballads.
- “Hey Jude” (Lennon & McCartney)
- “Over the Rainbow” (Arlen & Harburg)
- “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Paul Simon)
- “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)
- “What a Wonderful World” (Thiele & Weiss)
Maybe it’s because, when a song is slow, you have more opportunity to concentrate on the melody, and think about its main qualities. But the fact is that most songs, when they’re slow, seem to suit the kind of lyric that requires a well-shaped, luxurious melodic shape: sometimes love, sometimes nostalgia and sometimes sadness.
There are songs, however, for which you don’t have a need for those kinds of melodies. In fact, some songs work better if, instead of moving generously up and down, the tune sits on one to three main notes, amounting to a rather static melody.
And in the right song, a static melody might be exactly what’s required. A great example is Bob Seger’s 1987 hit “Shakedown” (music by Harold Faltermeyer and Keith Forsey, with lyrics by Bob Seger). The song was written for the motion picture “Beverly Hills Cop II”.
The song is fast and high energy, and the lyrics are edgy and driving:
No matter what you think you pulled you’ll find it’s not enough
No matter who you think you know you won’t get through
It’s a given L.A. law someone’s faster on the draw
No matter where you hide I’m coming after you…
The song is in E minor/major. If you concentrate on the melody, you’ll notice that in both the verse and the chorus, the melody dwells mainly on two notes: E and G. Occasionally for contrast’s sake, Seger will jump up an octave, but other than that, it’s a melody that is restricted in range and repetitive.
And that’s a very positive quality for this kind of song. The constant repetition of the same two or three notes gives the lyric more of an edge. The writers weren’t trying to write a beautiful tune: they were trying to write a song that would deliver the lyric in the best possible way.
In all songs, the best ones are a successful partnership of all its various components. It’s not enough to write a lyric with a hard edge, if the instrumentation, vocal style, chords and melody don’t support that lyrical intent.
It’s fair to say that for every song you write, it’s what happens after you write it that can make or break it. In songs where the lyrical intent is to be uneasy or a bit keyed up, pairing it up with a melody that features a lot of repeated notes will be the perfect partner.
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