Measure For Measure: Sex, Drugs and Dopamine

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Wanna write a hit song? Just try three chords and a little science.

In “Anatomy Of A Tearjerker” (Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2012), science editor Michaeleen Doucleff cites research showing that “emotionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs. This makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat the behavior.”

“The more emotions a song provokes – whether depressing or uplifting – the more we crave the song.” Certain musical devices, such as an appoggiatura (an accented note that clashes with a chord and then resolves into it) are known to provoke strong emotions, which leads to a formula for commercial success: “Unleash the tears and chills with small [musical] surprises, a smoky voice and soulful lyrics, and then sit back and let the dopamine keep us coming back for more.”

Sex, drugs and appoggiaturas, oh my! Except Nashville Hall-of-Famer Harlan Howard didn’t say, “All you need to write a country song is three chords and a shot of dopamine.” He said, “All you need to write a country song is three chords and the truth.”

Don’t know much biology, but it always seemed to me that the truth and an appoggiatura will unleash a lot more dopamine than an appoggiatura and a calculated attempt to grab my attention. The things described by Ms. Doucleff are important, but they are the shell. The truth is the kernel, the beating heart of a song. Without it, there is no life. You can have a hit , maybe, but not a bull’s-eye.

So, as the Man in Black once asked, “What is truth?”

Some of it is technique, just as Doucleff says. But it’s more, too. A song rings true when words and melody intertwine to create a whole that far exceeds the sum of its parts. But when words and melody don’t match, or when either of them sounds clunky or insincere, truth takes a hit. This is why The Beatles (Hal Leonard, Paperback Songs, ISBN 9780793545353) is our chosen textbook: Lennon and McCartney achieve a perfect conspiracy of words and melody over and over. The question is how? How does any song achieve such an accord parfait?

Words and melody both deliver meaning through sound, but words are transparent and melody is mysterious. In this series of columns, we are trying to clear up some of the mystery and enable you to write better melody. The July/August column, which focuses on melodic contour, mentioned that dramatic leaps – such as the soaring octave in “Some-where Over the Rainbow” – imply a burst of emotion. But what kind of emotion? Intervals – how high you jump – have a significant influence on that.

Consider Ary Barroso’s “Brazil” and The Beatles’ “Because.” Both songs include a dramatic leap (on “Bra-zil” and on “Be-cause”). In terms of intervals, both leaps are a “sixth” (six scale steps from bottom note to top) but “Bra-zil” – a major sixth – is exuberant and joyful, while “Be-cause” – a minor sixth – is like a wistful sigh. A major sixth is larger than a minor sixth by only one fret, one piano key, but they are as different as sunlight and moonbeams. This shows the unique power of intervals to add emotional color to melody.

The musical language includes twelve intervals, twelve emotional tone colors. Cultivating your sensitivity to them is an indispensible step in learning how to feed your listeners’ dopamine habit.

Soaking up the intervals, however, does not have to be drudgework. On my blog at American, I will post a list of songs that illustrate each one. Some musicians memorize intervals by singing songs that use them over and over until total recall sets in. But you should go beyond mere memorization. Listen to all of the songs that illustrate an interval, and write down words and images that describe how they make you feel (my own list will be posted, too).

Intervals, by their nature, are fleeting, so it often takes hearing them often in a variety of contexts over a period of days, if not weeks, to grasp what they imply. You must sing the intervals – it is easier to feel their emotional color that way. As you sing, change the words or invent your own. You will automatically home in on words that match the mood of the interval. (Sneakily, I’m breaking the ice with lyric-writing here.)

Intervals may be fleeting, but they matter! Responses to them, such as “happy” or “sad,” are universal – the same from Nashville to Timbuktu. Somehow our brains compute their emotional implications instantaneously. This is part of what makes music the universal language.

No one musical feature – not even the mighty appoggiatura – can account for the truth within a song. But by taking the elements of truth one at a time and savoring each one for all it’s worth, you can elevate your Musical I.Q. (Imagination Quotient) to the stars. And then, anything is possible.

The emotional color of scale tones – “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol” – will be the next stop on our musical mystery tour. As always, feel free to send questions to

* * *

In the October/November column, “Sex, Drugs, and Dopamines,” I promised to post a list of songs that would illustrate the emotive power of intervals, so here it is, in the form of a downloadable PDF called “Interval Color in Hit Songs.”

Putting the list together was no trivial task, as you’ll see when you open it. In fact, there’s nothing else like it on the Internet—at least not that I’m aware of. The first page explains how the list is organized. There are also some end-notes with advice on how to make the most of the uniquely instructive information it holds.

Warning! If you spend a lot of time with this song list, it’s liable to boost your Musical I.Q. so much that your imagination may explode.

You’ve been warned — now good luck!

To get David Alzofon’s free, supplemental e-book “Interval Color In Hit Songs” in PDF format, e-mail and put “Interval Color In Hit Songs” in the subject line.


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