Measure For Measure: Unchained Melody

Videos by American Songwriter

We all know a great melody when we hear one, but how to write one? That’s a question that has baffled the experts for centuries, yet every generation somehow manages to reinvent melody in their own image, which suggests that a practical answer may be closer than you think – as close as your ability to rhyme “good golly” with “Miss Molly.”

You can mine your natural language abilities for melodic gold, and this column will begin to show you how. The previous two columns have laid the groundwork, so be sure you have invested some time in them. Continue improvising rhythms and chord progressions a little every day to bolster your Musical I.Q. (Imagination Quotient).

Also, be sure to have Hal Leonard’s The Beatles (Paperback Songs, ISBN 0-7935-4535-8) on hand. Even if you don’t read music, the scores will help you understand the concepts. You can listen to the songs on YouTube as well. In most cases, the first part is the relevant part.

Let’s start with the obvious. Like your speaking voice, melody can go up or down, or hold steady. But what are the emotional implications of these contours?

As in everyday speech, rising pitch often implies rising emotions, such as joy, hope, or love. Consider the chorus to “Up, Up, And Away,” by Jimmy Webb, or the first notes of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy.” In The Beatles, check “And I Love Her,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “I’ll Follow The Sun.” Rising pitch may also imply distress. Consider “Help!” (listen for the escalating tension on the word “Help!”).

An upward leap signals a sudden burst of emotion. The bigger the leap, the stronger the burst. Consider the assertive “Beyond The Sea,” the joyful “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean,” and the soaring “Over The Rainbow.” In The Beatles, check out “Because” (on “Be-cause”), “Blackbird” (on “dead of”), “In My Life” (the first two notes of the instrumental), and “Eleanor Rigby” (near the end, on “Where do” in two places).

After an upward leap, the melody often descends by scale steps, as if releasing energy little by little (see “Nowhere Man” and “Rain”). The descending steps may zig-zag like a falling leaf, delaying the anticipated return to home, as in “Over The Rainbow.”

If rising melody defies gravity, falling melody yields to it, signaling declining energy, sentimentality, tenderness, surrender, sadness, or loss. It may also signal mounting resolve, as in the second measure of “Ode To Joy,” with its descending scale steps. Also see The Beatles’ “Across The Universe” (on “flowing out like endless rain”), “All My Loving,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Eight Days A Week” (which makes a resolute descent to the tonic on the title line), “Eleanor Rigby” (on “the lonely people”), “Girl” (listen to the sighs on “going to listen to …” and “Girl who came to stay,” as well as “Girl” in the chorus), “Help!” (each group of descending notes after “Help!” cries “distress”), “I’m A Loser” (on “Los-er”), “It’s Only Love,” and “Nowhere Man” (like a sad, tolling bell on “No-where Man,” “no-where land,” “no-where plans,” and “no-body”). In “Penny Lane,” a resolutely descending line arrives with a clunk on “motorcar,” implying silliness. “Taxman” falls fatefully on the words, “it will be.” In “Yesterday,” the suspenseful first note lapses resignedly to the second.

Arcs combine the characteristics of rising and falling lines. A rainbow arc expresses a surging wave of emotion. Listen to “And I Love Her” (from “And if you …” through “love her too”), “Birthday,” “Because” (the arcing instrumental), “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (on “And when I …”), “I’m Looking Through You,” “Nowhere Man,” “She Loves You,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Yesterday” (on “all my troubles seemed so far away”), and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.”

Pop composers often center an arc around the middle of a two-measure section (on the first beat of the second measure). I call this cool idea a rolling wave pattern. In The Beatles, “And I Love Her” features five rolling waves in the first nine measures. Also see “Because” (on “Love is all, love is you”), “A Day In The Life,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Eight Days A Week” (the first time they sing “Eight Days A Week”), “The Long And Winding Road” (“will never disappear,” and many other places), and “Magical Mystery Tour” (on “Roll up for the mystery tour”).

When composers hit higher notes in the chorus than in the verses, it creates a long-range arc. See “Across The Universe” (“Jai Guru Deva” through “my world”), “All You Need Is Love,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “For No One” (high note on “love”), “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.”

“Eleanor Rigby” arcs to its high note first, a brilliant move that tears at the heart as the melody descends tragically into the verse (on “Eleanor Rigby …”).

The Beatles like bucket-shaped arcs, which accentuate the positive on the rising side of the bucket. Check out “And Your Bird Can Sing” (the opening instrumental), and “All My Loving.”

Straight lines suggest restless energy or a dreamy drone. See “The Ballad Of John And Yoko,” “Drive My Car,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Julia.”

Between now and the next column, listen to songs while you focus deeply on the emotional effects of just one kind of line – rising, falling, or steady – and the arcing contours, such as rainbow, bucket, or falling leaf. Then improvise two-measure sections that imitate that contour. Compose many sections using the rolling wave pattern. Do variations on sections you find in The Beatles. For example, change a couple of notes at the end, or change a rainbow to a bucket, and vice versa. Try to hear everything before you play it or sing it.

Check in at from time to time to look for supplementary videos, and feel free to email questions to [email protected].


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Chatting It Up With: Carl Falk