Measure for Measure: More than Money

Imagine, if you will, a blank canvas — soon to be the site of your next song.

Intimidating? Not to worry: This is the creativity tour, where we see how great songwriters vanquish the musical void. Recent stops on the tour have included creativity and playfulness, melodic minor thirds, hooks, and catchiness.

So where to next? The money note.

John Seabrook describes the origin of the term in his July 7, 2003, New Yorker article, “The Money Note.” One day at the studio, it seems, Barbra Streisand asked producer David Foster what he thought of a high note she’d hit. “That sounds like money!” he said, and the pop music dictionary was listening.

Money notes are melodic moments that generate irresistible emotional surges. Seabrook cites the third chorus to “I Will Always Love You” (Whitney Houston, 0:44, 1:45, 3:06), “My Heart Will Go On” (Celine Dion, 3:14), and “My Way Back Home” (Cherie, 2:46 – 2:55). A money note often enters with an energetic leap to the top of the melodic range, but songwriting instructor Jason Blume mentions the chorus of Garth Brooks’ “I’ve Got Friends In Low Places” (0:44) as a low note that shows us the money.

Money notes are hit makers, which is why your intrepid tour guide went off in search of examples, starting in the 1950s. By the time I got to the 1990s, however, the line between high notes, money notes and hooks was beginning to blur. That’s when I realized a bigger theme was in play: hooks, riffs, catchiness and money notes all serve a common purpose – grabbing the audience’s attention. When the attention-grabbing notes fade, anticipation sets in, initiating a cycle of anticipation and reward that creates structural joists in a song. Some units, such as hooks, generate short-range structures. Others, such as money notes and high notes, create long-range structures.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana) is a good example of short-range structuring. The brooding verse creates anticipation. In the chorus, the anguished hook and abrupt pitch elevation reward listeners with head-banging release. These multiple short-range punches are perfectly suited to the emotionally-jagged subject matter.

But what does this have to do with your blank canvas? Everything! Amateur painters fill a canvas willy-nilly, working from a random corner toward the center, for example. Professional painters block out the composition first, then fill in details. Songwriting is similar. Amateurs strum the guitar, sing a few notes and run out of ideas. Professionals block out the composition and fill in details later.

Roy Orbison’s masterpiece, “Crying,” offers a prime example of the power of a high note to build long-range structure. Let’s imagine how he might have composed it.

We start with an image – running into a former lover, holding back the tears, pretending everything’s OK. A good idea, and it already suggests a long, slow ramp-up to an emotional release.

So you block in your canvas. How about putting the high note E in the chorus? We’ll put the low note, A, in the first measure and climb the ramp upward step-by-step, ABCDE.

Notice how a goal note helps you structure your canvas, like perspective in a painting. The trick will be slowing the pace of the climb. Now we fill in the details:

MM 1-2: “I was all right – for a-while.” The melodic repetition and the long notes on A buy two measures, a good construction unit. The notes themselves suggest putting on a smile. A is “La,” a happy note, but it hangs in the air like a balloon, brave but vulnerable.

MM 3-4: “I could smile – for a-while.” We hit a new high on B, but the melody sighs sadly through E minor (B-G-E), lingering wistfully on the low E.

MM 5-6: “But I saw you last night … so tight.” We hit step 4, a D, on “saw” and fall back to C, then surge again to D on “hand.” Skipping a note (C) and filling it in later is a common delaying tactic. We’re almost at the top of the ramp.

MM 7-8: “as you stopped – to say ‘Hel-lo.’” The third repetition of D (on “stopped”) pumps up anticipation of the high E. The falling chord notes echo measures 3-4.

MM 9-10: “Oh you wished me well …” Here at last, delayed an extra two measures, is the giant build toward the chorus, accompanied for the first time by the dramatic dominant 7th chord.

MM 11-12: “Cry-y-y-ing o-ver you.” The falling notes suggest shoulders hitching with sobs. The operatic leap to the high E on “o-ver you” is accompanied by C to E minor, the same mournful change heard in “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy.

The point — and the power — of a money note, or any high note, will be found in the notes that precede it. Take a tour of the hit song lists for the ’50s to the present day and listen for high notes structuring the musical canvas. Short-range structural units dominate contemporary music, but long builds are still to be found. And the next time you face a blank canvas, try blocking in the composition first, then filling in the details.

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