Melodic shape in songwriting

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 224, February 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Noami Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

If you ask songwriters how they create melodies, you’ll get a pretty vague answer. Something like ‘well, I just get inspired by the lyric’ or ‘it’s whatever sounds good when I sing it’. Of all the creative decisions we make when we write songs, melodic choices are perhaps the most mysterious. We don’t really know where they come from, so we sing whatever feels right and take it from there.

Many of us, as chord-literate guitarists, come to melody writing in this self-taught way, and on a good day it helps us to write melodies very freely and quickly. But on a bad day this instinctive approach can turn out meandering or predictable melodies, leaving us struggling to write something that the listener will remember. Sometimes the chords distract us from thinking about the all-important shape of our tune.

Songwriters who create melody are in control of two things – the pitch of the notes and the rhythm of the syllables. Every time we sing a note, the note that follows it can be higher, lower, or the same note. Movement between notes can be adjacent (scalic), as in ‘We don’t need no education’, or a larger leap (intervallic), as in ‘Rooooox…anne’. Think about the pitch shape of your songs: what are your habits? Do you tend to linger on one note, do you write scalically, or do you sing lots of ‘leaps’? What direction do your phrases usually take – starting high and descending, staying on one note, or rising from a low note to a higher one as you sing the line? These tendencies help to define your personal melodic writing style, so it’s worth listening back to your old demos to see if any patterns emerge.

And pitch is only one half of the melodic story. The way syllables fall against the beat (scansion) is an essential part of what makes the audience listen to a melody. Let’s say we were working on the lyric “I’m falling through the sky”. One obvious setting of this line would be for ‘I’m’ and ‘sky’ to be long syllables, and all the other syllables to be short, much as if we were speaking the phrase in conversation. But that’s just one approach. We could ‘run up’ to the final word with a lot of very short syllables, before screaming the word ‘sky’ to the heavens on a single long high note. Or we could play around with the word ‘falling’ so that its big ‘fall’ syllable descended over several notes, stretched over the vowel. (There’s songwriting fun to be had here writing a descending melody over the word ‘falling’). There are dozens of other rhythmic interpretations, for this and every other lyric, and the first idea we try may not necessarily be the best.

A strong melody needs to strike a balance between complexity and simplicity, and it needs to sound good when sung with the words. If your lyric is very wordy, with lots of storytelling and imagery, you might want the pitches of the melody to be fairly static. Take the verse of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Its machine-gun syllables deliver complex lyrics at high speed using a one-note melody. Contrast this with the chorus of Pearl Jam’s Alive. The lyric ‘Oh I, oh, I’m still alive’ is sung over a complete octave from E to E, and these six vowel-heavy words are stretched out over two whole bars.

So what happens if you don’t like the melody you’ve written – when you feel you’re stuck in a rut? One way out is to try a new method and see what happens. If you usually write melodies by singing over strummed chord changes, and you’re finding that your melodies seem a bit static or unadventurous, try using a keyboard to suggest bigger intervals. If vocal improvising over chords isn’t working for you, try speaking the lyric out loud without music – the natural rise and fall of the vowels might suggest a melody and its rhythm (my favourite example of this is Paul Simon’s ‘Old Friends / sat on their park bench like bookends’ – say it out loud and you can hear the melody within it). And if you can’t get the lyric to scan properly, try singing it over a drum loop to make the scansion more naturally rhythmic. As with all songwriting, process can affect product – so it can be fun to experiment and discover how different starting points might stimulate your creative brain.

Harmonic Rhythm in Songwriting

I originally wrote this article for Total Guitar magazine. It appears in issue TG214 (May 2011) and it is reproduced here by permission.

Download pdf – TG214-harmonic-rhythm

Put some rhythm in your rhythm

It could be said that songs (as distinct from recordings) consist of only three things – melody, lyric and chords. Today we’re going to focus on the use of guitar chord changes in the songwriting process, and how you can use them to make your songs communicate more powerfully.

When you’re adding chords to a new song, you get to decide on the chord root (C, G, Eb, F# or whatever), the chord type (major, minor, m7, 7flat9 etc) and when in the song each chord change should happen. The first two are pretty easy to explain and to use – every guitarist has a chord vocabulary, and if you want to use new and exotic chords, you can either consult a chord book or make up shapes by trial-and-error.

It’s the placement of each chord that sometimes takes a bit more work. Many new songwriters change the chords every bar, on the bar. They strum a chord for two or perhaps four beats, then move onto the next chord. Sometimes the whole song consists of the same four-chord loop over and over – well-trodden paths include Am-G-F-G, C-G-Am-F, Am-C-G-D or even the old 1950s staple C-Am-F-G. Using the same chord loop throughout is a perfectly good way of writing a song, and includes four-chord classics such as Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower, U2’s With Or Without You, Ben E King’s Stand By Me and Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, but it’s not the only option. The simplest change you can make is to vary the loops, using a different sequence for verse and chorus e.g. Green Day’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams uses (capo 1st fret) Em-G-D-A for the verse, then C-G-D-Em for the chorus.

Illustration - Christian Ward

And chords don’t always have to change on the barline – you can do it any beat of the bar. One method that songwriters use to spice up a sequence is to include an additional chord change on the half-bar i.e. beat 3 if you’re in 4/4 time. Say you’ve decided you’re going to write a 4/4 verse section that uses the chords of E, G, D and A. The most obvious starting point would be to strum each chord for a bar each, creating a four-bar loop that you’d then repeat. So let’s try a few variations. Strum the E for two bars, the G for one bar, then the D and A for two beats each. Not only is this less predictable, it’s more likely to encourage your brain to write a more interesting melody. Here’s another variation. Strum the E for three beats, then change to the G on the count of four and throughout the second bar (this is sometimes called a ‘push’ chord change). Then play the D chord from the start of bar 3, changing to the A only for the final two beats of bar 4.

The term we use to refer to how often the chords change is called ‘harmonic rhythm’, and it’s a very useful tool for the songwriter because it is one of the ways we control the listener’s sense of ‘pace’ and momentum in the song. To go back to Boulevard… as an example, both chord loops are played as half-bar changes, or two beats per chord. At the end of this chorus there’s a surprise for the audience as the song includes a B major chord for two whole bars – which adds to the drama of a melodic change combined with the emotionally powerful lyric “Til then I walk alone”.

Changing the harmonic rhythm at the start of a chorus can help to show the listener that they’re hearing a new section; typical techniques include moving from half-bars to whole-bar changes, or from whole-bar changes to two-bar changes, or vice versa. Clapton’s Tears In Heaven uses half-bar changes (with occasional whole bars) in the verses, then switches to whole-bar changes throughout the chorus, supporting the change of mood provided by the self-reflective lyric “I must be strong…”. This ‘gear-shift’ effect can be equally effective at the start of bridge section or even a guitar solo.

Generally, the faster the harmonic rhythm, the more momentum the section will have. For example, the Rolling Stones use 2-bar changes (verse) followed by 1-bar changes (chorus) in Satisfaction, but take the exact opposite approach in Sympathy For The Devil.

Every song has its own signature harmonic rhythm, and controlling it in your songwriting can add a powerful weapon to your arsenal of techniques. Ready… aim… strum!

Melody quiz

Dear reader,

I’d like your help to settle an argument. A songwriter I know has written a melody, but a friend of his says it sounds like something else. I don’t want to prejudice your views by saying any more for now – I just want your honest opinion as a randomly-self-selected blog visitor. The MP3 below (left-click to listen in browser, right-click to download) is an excerpt of his melody, and I want you to let me know if it sounds like an existing song.

So we’re going to try to settle the argument either way by asking you what you think of his melody (it’s only 6 notes long, and played on a keyboard over a click track). There’s a poll below, and there are two possible answers – either you think it sounds like something else (in which case type in the song or artist you think it sounds like in the ‘other’ box), or you don’t recognise it.

Melody excerpt (MP3)

Shower Thee People

The studio has been busy since its completion. Or rather, its near-completion. Everything is sorted technically so I have 16 simultaneous inputs available, 12 of which have valve pres via the M1F. Howard will be returning soon to fit the XLR wall plates and do the relevant soldering.

Remember the holes that Artis drilled for the cables?

Remember the holes that Artis drilled for the cables?

So in the absence of wall plates I’m just poking XLRs through the holes in the walls (which are now the only route that sound can travel between the rooms – a pretty clear example of how effective the studio’s soundproofing is).

The studio will have three main functions – a recording/co-writing space for commercial song projects and work relating to my Songwriting PhD; a production facility for the CDs that go on the cover of my guitar books (e.g. the next book in the Complete Junior Guitarist series); and, er, everything else – i.e. whatever other musical opportunities arise that sound fun or interesting. In this third category I’ve undertaken three projects recently – a Techno remix of a James Taylor song, a community-based recording of some local people’s original songs, and (mainly to test out multiple drum mic-ing) a prog-rock drum session for a couple of CM graduates, Chris and Tom.

The Guitar book

The Complete Junior Guitarist was published in Sept 2009 and early indications are that it’s doing OK in the shops. The people at Music Sales tell me that there’s a dearth of good-quality guitar teaching material aimed around ‘Key Stage 2’ (i.e. junior school kids aged 8-11), so this is the book I’ve tried to write – not patronisingly full of pictures of anthropomorphic cartoon animals as younger starter books can be, but not based on particular bands, styles or artists, as more teen-focused books often are. So the book ended up quite ‘serious’ but I think this matter-of-fact editorial tone is what a lot of kids this age like to read. What I’ve avoided (I hope) is ‘dumbing down’ of the audio (there are 52 tracks on the cover CD including backing tracks for all the pieces, and I used live session players for bass and drums rather than compromise by programming the kit part). The book also focuses on short melodic pieces, as opposed to chords, which are much more difficult for the beginner – I’ve never understood why some guitar books do this.

I’m hoping to write book 2 in the series during 2010, and the home studio will enable me to try out ideas for the next book’s cover CD without worrying about the ‘meter running’ pressures of hired studio space or players’ time (although, as before, there will always be a pro drummer on the final session – I’m not going to be a good enough kit player any time soon).

Thanks BTW to everyone who helped me to choose the title for the book (see previous blog entry) – Complete Junior Guitarist won the day, which has the added advantage of making this book the first result when these three words are typed into Google.

Song for Widcombe

A guitarist mic'd up with an SE100 condenser in the dry room.

A guitarist mic'd up (with an SE100 condenser) during one of the Widcombe project song sessions.

In an earlier post I mentioned the Song For Widcombe community project, and the song I submitted ‘Widcombe Rising’. Since then I’ve gotten to know the lovely people involved in the Widcombe Association and become generally more interested in Mummers‘ plays and songs. The association wants to put together a CD of its top 10 ‘finalist’ songs, and I listened to some of the original demos, which were varying in quality depending on the kind of recording kit each songwriter had access to (some only existing in sheet music form). Given my views on Performance vs Songwriting, it seemed only fair that none of the other songs on the album should be compromised by a technically poor demo – so I agreed to run some studio sessions for those writers who didn’t have access to decent recording kit. The motive for this wasn’t entirely altruistic – I need to test the studio as much as possible to check the signal paths and get to know the patchbay, layout, ergonomics etc… plus the sound of the room, mics & speakers. And given the varied collection of instruments that Mummers’ songs may include (concertina, fiddle, melodion/accordion, piano, recorder, flute, piccolo, bass drum, bodhrán, guitar, upright bass, banjo, and multiple male and female voices) this was the perfect opportunity.

Here are a few descriptions of the ensembles we’ve done already – there’ll be a playback session of these and others in Widcombe in a couple of weeks. I won’t post MP3s for now, as I don’t have permission from the writers to do so, but hopefully this will be forthcoming once the project is over; you may also be able to download the tracks from iTunes at some point in the future.

  • 4-part male voice folk choir and bass drum
  • G&S-style piano and male voice
  • Piano, guitar, sampled Tuba and male voice
  • Folk band including concertina, piccolo banjo, floor tom, snare, recorder, fiddle, guitar and multiple voices
  • Folk band including programmed kit, electric bass, sampled fiddle, accordion and tin whistle, guitars, multi-tracked male voices, handclaps and tambourine

At the other end of the musical spectrum (or certainly some distance along it) I did a session yesterday for a couple of Bath Spa graduates who needed to do some drum tracking for a ‘prog’ album. We did a deal – they get a day’s free recording time, and I get to use their (excellent) drummer Tom on a future session for no fee. Traditional community bartering… perhaps all this olde worlde folky-ness is affecting me more than a little…

Tom does some drum tracking in the dry room. An unusual drummer - no rack toms.

Tom does some drum tracking in the dry room. An unusual drummer - no rack toms, and two hi-hats.

Vocal and guitar take in the control room.

Chris puts down a vocal and guitar take in the control room.

Techno Techno

Finally, here’s a mix of a track I did a couple of weeks ago with a old mate from my days at Future Publishing. He’s a fan of classic Techno (and knows much more about it that I do) but has always had a soft spot for James Taylor (the songwriter, not the jazzer). So here’s our remix-in-progress of JT’s Shower The People (You Love With Love). It’s turned out a little more ’70s Disco than ’90s Techno – I blame the off-beat handclaps on the intro. The track is, of course, doomed to unreleased commercial obscurity, considering its obvious and constant use of uncleared samples of a well-known recording, but hey – it was fun. And James – if you’re reading this, hope you forgive us for timestretching you up to 130BPM.

Shower Thee People MP3 (JB & DR remix)

Buy the original on iTunes