Want the best set up for your big hooky chorus? Work on your conversation skills — your conversational verse melody skills, that is.
Publishers, artists and producers will tell you they are either looking for or trying to create that next hit chorus — or, at the very least, a chorus that resonates with their fans. As a songwriter, I’ve been fortunate to write my share of chart-topping choruses. However, it took a lot of trial and error to discover that the success of a chorus often lies in the preceding verse. And, more specifically, in writing a conversational verse melody.
Today’s music scene is dominated by the verse/chorus song structure where great writers understand that the job of the initial verse melody is to invite the listener in. Whether your musical heroes are The Beatles, John Prine or Taylor Swift, chances are you have heard a steady stream of conversational melodies without realizing it. The verse melody sets the mood and tone of the song. That’s it. You don’t want to give too much away too early in the song.
Think of it this way: It’s like going on a first date. You’re making good conversation, but you’re not going to spill your whole life story in the first few minutes. You want to save a little mystery for the following dates. If you create a verse melody with a huge note range, then you have nowhere emotionally interesting to go when you hit your chorus. And tugging on the heart-strings is what a chorus is supposed to do. It gives you the feels: heartache, nostalgia, joy, celebration, desire.
Check out the verse melodies of “Hello” by Adele or “Unforgettable” by Thomas Rhett. Both songs spend the majority of the verse hovering around a three-note melodic range. In my own Grammy-nominated song “Beautiful Mess,” sung by Diamond Rio (shameless plug), the entire first two lines of each verse section are limited to only two notes. The same is true of the opening melody of The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus.” Two notes. If you think a few notes is not enough to write an interesting verse melody, check out the classic jazz song “One Note Samba,” written by Antônio Carlos Jobim. Notice how creatively he stretches a single repeated note through an entire half verse!
So how do you create a compelling melody with so few notes at your disposal? Fortunately, melody note selection works in tandem with other musical elements. Rhythm patterns, groove, syncopation in the right spots and harmony all contribute to a total sonic package.
Just listen to masters of syncopation Maroon 5 as Adam Levine sings “She Will Be Loved.” The verse melody doesn’t have a wide note range, but Levine keeps the melody both conversational and exciting by adding syncopation to the back half of each verse line. The bold words below are all sung on the upbeats.
Beauty queen of on-ly eigh-teen
She had some trouble with her-self
Another effective technique for creating a hooky conversational verse is to incorporate the tresillo beat into your melody. Tresillo is a latin music term meaning three beats over two. Listen to Thomas Rhett’s “Craving You.” Can you hear how the words in bold mimic a triplet feel?
Ev-‘ry time we have to say good-bye
I’m countin’ down un-til we say hello
1 – 2 – 3 we have to 1 – 2 – 3
I’m countin’ 1 – 2 – 3 we say hello
Incorporating this type of rhythmic pattern into your songwriting will instantly level-up the hook factor in your verse and keep it conversational. As we journey through the next year of American Songwriter articles together, I’ll cover more ways to boost your melody writing.
So remember that the best songs set up their choruses so that the listener connects with the big emotion. Whether you feel like crying or dancing, it’s usually the chorus that squeezes your heart the hardest. Starting your songs with a conversational verse melody and then introducing a bigger melodic range in the chorus will infuse your songs with maximum emotional impact.
Every time I learn a new technique, I immediately implement it into my writing. Here’s my challenge to you the next time you write: Purposely limit yourself to a three- or four-note melody range in your verse. Experiment and see where it takes you. Am I suggesting you do this on every song you write? Never! However, this is one powerful tool to master. Soak it in. Make it a part of your musical DNA.
Clay Mills is a six-time No.1 hitmaker and multi-Grammy nominated songwriter. His songs have been recorded by major artists in country, pop, rock, dance, bluegrass, and gospel. His voice and songs have found their way into national ad campaigns and movie soundtracks. He co-founded SongTown, the world’s leading songwriter education site, with fellow hit writer Marty Dodson. Visit SongTown.com for 10 free videos.