Measure for Measure: Reader Questions, Free Intervals E-Book

Videos by American Songwriter

Here’s a reader question for David Alzofon on his column “Unchained Melody,” which ran in the July/August issue. David’s response shines a helpful light on the topic of  bucket-shaped arcs and rolling waves in songwriting. Also, Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero” comes up.

To get David Alzofon’s free, supplemental e-book “Interval Color In Hit Songs” in PDF format, as mentioned in his Sept/Oct 2012 column Sex, Drugs and Dopamines, e-mail [email protected] and put “Interval Color In Hit Songs” in the subject line.

* * *

Hi, David

I was just reading your article on Beatles melodies, and I’m not too clear on the “rolling wave” concept. Do you mean that one line ends on a high note, and the next line resolves it?

Also by “bucket shape,” do you mean the melody line starts on a note, repeats it, then drops down, and then back up?

* * *

Hi Ben,

Thanks for writing.

The rolling wave is a phrasing pattern, not a melodic contour, like a bucket or a rainbow. The melody notes don’t matter to a rolling wave. Neither does their direction, up or down. They could be almost anything — it’s the rhythmic pattern that defines a rolling wave.

Here’s how it works:

As I mentioned in the first column of the year (March/April), tons of pop songs are based on two-measure phrases called SECTIONS. In other words, you’ll often find that if a melody is eight measures long, it breaks down into two-measure phrases: 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 measures, rather than, say, 4 + 4 measures.

If we’re counting in 4/4 time (four beats per measure), then a section is counted off like this: ONE – two – three – four, ONE – two – three – four. Two measures of time, that’s all. It’s a framework, a blank canvas.

Notice that a section has TWO downbeats (two “ONE” counts).

The “rolling wave” is a melodic phrase played over this blank canvas. But here’s the key thing: The rolling wave includes only ONE downbeat. The melody starts before the second “ONE” in the two-measure count, builds energy on its way into that “ONE,” and then trails off in measure two. Like a wave, it has only one peak.

Let’s add a rolling wave to the basic ONE – two – three – four, ONE – two- three – four count of a two-measure section. I’ll just show the beats it might cover by putting them in boldface below:

ONE – two – three- four, ONE – two – three – four.

The band will keep the basic groove goin’ with ONE – two – three – four, ONE – two – three – four, but the SINGER will sing over beats three-four, ONE-two.

You can see this in many, many Beatles’ songs. I just flipped my book open to a random page and ran into “Don’t Let Me Down.” In measures 1-2, we see a rolling wave instrumental. In measures 2-3, we hear “Don’t Let Me Down” sung to a rolling wave pattern. The ideas — instrumental and vocal — are cheek by jowl, but they are still rolling waves. After all, an instrumental is much different from a vocal, so we don’t need four measures to act out two rolling waves in this case. Later in the song you can see a rolling wave with every repetition of “Don’t Let Me Down.” Now you can look at the scores to any of the other songs that I mentioned in the article and find the pattern (I hope).

Others: I think that “One Fine Day” is made up almost entirely of rolling waves. When I was writing my book, I made a list of a hundred songs or so that featured rolling waves. What I noticed is that it is a great way to add emotional punch to your melody. It also adds drama because it almost forces you to break up your lyrics into suspenseful little telegrams.

Take a Dylan song, for instance: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” I love this song for a lot of reasons, but it does showcase the emotional effect of that ONE DOWNBEAT SURGE that is characteristic of the rolling wave pattern. The first sixteen measures of the song are all made up of two-measure sections: 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2, so you get the suspenseful telegram effect.

The first line “My love she speaks like silence” is NOT a rolling wave because it covers two downbeats. It is relatively calm and free of suspense compared to…

The line “Without ideals or violence,” which IS a rolling wave because it is two measures long, but covers only ONE DOWNBEAT. It has more suspense, amplified by the rolling wave.

“She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful” is a rolling wave because it begins on the “and” of count “ONE”, and there’s a long note that breaks measure two up into two halves.

“But she’s true like ice like fire” is a regular two-measure section because it covers two downbeats. I think it was a good move to revert to a standard, two-downbeat melodic phrase here because it’s at the end of the first eight measures, where we expect the suspense to come to some kind of conclusion or semi-conclusion.

“People carry roses”: regular two-measure section.

“And make promises by the hours”: rolling wave

“My love she laughs like the flowers”: rolling wave

“Valentines can’t buy her.”: rolling wave.

Now that you know what it is, try looking through a pop song fake-book and you’ll start noticing it all over the place. Better yet, listen to it. You’ll see: it’s probably linked to a lot of lines that you’ve liked over the years.

Best: Try babbling out some rolling wave lines of your own. Just get the hang of it.

BUCKETS: This is a melodic contour that is like a rainbow turned upside down. They dip down and then rise up again. Perfect example: “All My Loving,” first line, or the instrumental intro to “And Your Bird Can Sing.”

RAINBOWS: Arc upwards and then fall back down. I just thought “rainbows” and “buckets” sounded good together, by the way: catching rain in a bucket? Never mind — you had to be there. Perfect example: “Eleanor Rigby” — “Ahh — look at all the lone-ly peo-ple…”

The column that comes out in September will discuss why “Eleanor Rigby” is a sad rainbow, but another rainbow might be a happy one.

I’m planning on releasing a very interesting PDF with the November/December column that will disclose a secret of Beatles songwriting technique, somewhat similar to the rolling wave in that it’s perfectly obvious, once someone points it out to you, and you can easily use it yourself. Except, nobody’s noticed it before — in all these years.

Thanks for writing, and let me know if you have any other questions. I appreciate the questions because they give me ideas for columns, and they tell me where I need to explain things better.

David A.

Got a question for David Alzofon? E-mail him directly at [email protected].


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Songwriting 101: Steve Forbert