Join Tony's Mailing List

Get notified about songwriting events and gigs.

Is This The Most Overlooked Aspect Of Good Songwriting?

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 beatruns 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 beatends 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?

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:


And please share on facebook etc. by clicking the tabs below the video




11 responses to “Is This The Most Overlooked Aspect Of Good Songwriting?”

  • wayne somerville

    And don’t forget variation in the the harmonic rhythm. New songwriters get stuck in the rhythms they set up at the beginning of their song and it seems they don’t even consider the possibility of changing those rhythms.

  • Rich Meitin

    I think it is a great idea to examine your initial drafts of a song to see whether altering repeated rhythms is a useful thing to do. Sometimes, that wall spice things up perfectly. But at other times, repeating the rhythms of a given line of verse doesn’t bother me at all. When you think of all the songs of Gershwin and Porter, or the way McCartney often writes, the way that they deliberately repeat lyric rhythms seems elegant and correct, rather than something boring that needs to be shaken up.

    But if you DO want to alter the lyric rythms to get the effect that you are pointing to, I think it’s also helpful to shift the rhythm of where the principal notes of the melody fall in each phrase. If all you are doing is adding extra pickup notes, I don’t think you get much power out of the technique.

    Makes sense?

  • Bill Topper

    As a novice songwriter, I find every word and idea on this subject fascinating and useful. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    Bill Topper

  • A useful tool for songwriters – especially those who are learning their craft. Thank you.

  • Anthony Aloysius Marshall

    How about Rap song compositions :)

  • Mark Permann

    Hi Tony,
    Thanks for picking a song which was very popular and also contains a such a spare melody (by which I mean, few notes) to illustrate your point. I had been saving this article for a while until I would take the relatively short but focused amount of time to really listen and understand what you’re saying…and having done so, I get it!

Leave a comment