Bruce Springsteen

Audiences Don’t Remember Notes — They Remember Patterns

If you look at the number of different notes that any one good melody uses, you might be surprised by how few there are. For many songs, most of the notes will be from one octave, and often less. In a song like “Hound Dog”, most of the song is comprised of 3 or 4 notes, with one or two extra ones occasionally thrown in.

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It doesn’t take a lot of notes. And in fact, the number of notes you use has little to do with the success of a melody. It has more to do with the patterns you create with the ones you do use. (It’s also true that songs that use a large tone set of more than one octave might have the downside of not being as easy to remember).

Humans are great pattern recognizers. It seems that we have an uncanny ability to hear and recognize patterns, whether those are visual ones — like easily seeing shapes in clouds — or auditory ones — like making sense of patterns of notes within a song.

There are all sorts of patterns that musical performers use in the writing of a song, starting with a repetitious drum beat, then a repeating chord progression, repeating lyrics, rhyming lyrics (which is a kind of pattern), and then the notes we use for melodies.

If we didn’t use patterns in the songs we write, we’d be giving our audiences a mess to try to make sense of. Chords that didn’t repeat would sound like we’re on an endless, directionless journey.

But more specifically, and especially as it pertains to melodies, if we didn’t use patterns within song melodies, we’d have given our listeners an almost impossible task of trying to remember our melodies.

Patterns in melodies happen when we have things repeat, either exactly or approximately. Listen to any song that you like, and you’ll notice that it will probably start with an idea or two, but very quickly you’ll hear something repeat, either exactly or approximately. Listen to the first two lines of Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart“, and you’ll then notice that those two lines are repeated pretty much exactly.

And then you’ll notice that practically every pair of lines in the song is almost an exact duplicate of the initial pair. Repetition, especially when used in this way, is an important part of the groove of most songs, and, as we see in so many songs in the pop genres, an important aspect of standard chorus hooks.

If you’ve written a song where you feel like your fans just aren’t connecting to it the way you thought they might, take a look at the various melodies, chords, lyrics and other song elements, and see how repetition and patterns do (or don’t) form an essential part of its construction.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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