Joni Mitchell

How the Shape of Your Melody Can Help or Hurt a Song

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Most listeners to a song aren’t aware of many of the structural things that make songs great. They only know that they like it or they don’t. But as a songwriter, you hopefully know that song success isn’t particularly random; songs are good when the various elements partner up well.

The term “partnering up” refers to several things, including:

  1. The melody is supported by the chords underneath.
  2. The lyrics and their apparent meaning seem to be supported and enhanced by the melodic shape.
  3. The rhythm of the melody pairs up well with the natural rhythm of the lyric.

Once you start factoring all of these aspects together, you really might get the sense that there is a randomness to a song working well. But as you put the magnifying glass on each individual element, you improve your chances of making your song work well.

One thing you may notice about good songs is how the melody moves up and down, and in particular, that it’s not as random as you might think. If you did a line drawing of a good song melody, you might think that there is a randomness to how it moves up and down, but if you consider the entire melody — from the start of the verse to the end of the chorus — you’ll often notice an overall shape appearing.

A good example of this is Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now“. The melody starts relatively low in pitch, moves generally upward, giving its highest notes near the start of the chorus, and then gradually moves downward as the chorus ends.

That “inverted-U” shape in song melodies is quite common — there’s something natural about it. Listeners like hearing music gain momentum and energy as it progresses, and one of the best ways to achieve that energy gain is to have the melody move upward.

And then it’s common for chorus melodies to move back down toward its end, in order for the end of the chorus to connect more smoothly to the start of the next verse. So many classic pop tunes do this, some to a more exacting degree than others:

  • “The Times They Are A-Changin'” (Bob Dylan)
  • “Hey Jude” (Lennon & McCartney)
  • “Bad” (Michael Jackson)
  • “Every Breath You Take” (Sting)
  • “Life Is a Highway” (Tom Cochrane)

In your own songwriting, if you find that your song melodies don’t seem to be having the affect you wish they did, take a look at the overall shape, from the start of the verse through to the end of the chorus.

You may find that the contour is just a little too random, and not doing what it could to help the song gain musical energy.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

How to Harmonize a MelodyIf you’ve written a melody and you want to explore the many ways there are to add chords to it, you need to get “How to Harmonize a Melody.” It shows you step by step, with sound samples, how to create the chords that will bring your melodies to life.

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