I’ve worked with a lot of songwriters. The single most glaring area of weakness I hear has to do with predictable rhythms in the melody.
I’ve often said that in all its aspects melody is the most neglected part of songwriting. Neglected by songwriters, that is. And the biggest offender is not the choice of pitches in the melody, as you might expect. It’s the rhythm of the melody’s notes.
Many of us come up with one or two phrases of melody and think, “I’m done!”. But writing a good melody isn’t usually that simple. I’m not saying you always have to labor over it to make it good (though you often do), but just repeating the same rhythm line after line is a sure sign of a non-professional-level songwriter.
To illustrate this principle, I turn to Bruce Springsteen and his great song ’Born In The USA’ (below).
Consider the Verse. Most of the melody is only 3 notes. He trails it lower at the end of the 2nd and 4th lines, but other than that it’s the 3 notes, repeated in a similar order. So far it’s a recipe for predictability. But then you listen to the rhythm.
Born down in a dead man’s town
Starts on the 2nd beat of the first bar (it’s an 8 bar Verse; each line gets 2 bars) – ends on the 8th note after 2 in the second bar
First kick I took was when I hit the ground
Starts on the 1st beat – runs all the way to the end of the next bar and directly into –
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Also starts on first beat – ends on the 8th note after beat 2, but again goes directly into –
Till you spend half your life just covering up now
Starts a beat and a half before the 7th bar and runs through the end of the 8th bar
Line 1 begins on beat 2… Lines 2 and 3 begin on the beat 1… Line 4 starts before the next downbeat; early, in the middle of bar 6.
Plus, the melody accelerates; the lines get longer and fuller, and one starts to run right into the next, creating urgency and intensity
So even though we’re basically just hearing those same three notes, the rhythmic changes give enough variety to keep it interesting and driving.
The simplicity of the notes is not laziness (something I’ve never heard in the Boss’s writing); it suits the lyric and the theme. But if it was just the same rhythm over and over… trust me, it would not work (Or, better, don’t trust me. Try singing all the lines starting on beat 1 of every 2 bars, for example. You’ll see.)
The point here is not just to draw attention to the workings of a great song. It’s to illustrate a principal of almost all good songwriting: It’s not enough for the pitches to change; there needs to be rhythmic variation in the melody.
To me this might be THE most overlooked aspect (by songwriters themselves) of the craft of good songwriting.
What do you think?
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