Using different melody shapes

An easy trick to keep your song interesting is to vary the melody shape between your verses and choruses. First, let’s introduce the six basic melody shapes:

Ascending melodies start on lower notes and move upwards to higher notes.

Descending melodies start on higher notes and move downward to lower notes.

One-note melodies stay on a single note.

Zigzag melodies move up and down between higher and lower notes.

Arch shaped melodies start on lower notes, move upwards to higher notes, and come back down.

Inverted arch shaped melodies start on higher notes, move downward to lower notes, and return to back up.

Most melodies are one of these shapes, or are a combination of two or more of these shapes. To keep your song interesting to your listeners, vary the melodic shape between sections. For example: if your verse melody is primarily arch shaped, then use one of the other five shapes for your chorus. If your verse melody is a combination of two shapes, you still have four other shapes to draw from for your chorus.

Here are three examples of this method:

Katy Perry is a great example of this technique. In her song California Gurls, notice her verse melody is dominated by a zigzag shape, but her chorus melody is mostly a one-note melody that ends with arches (although, in the chorus, the “oh’s” she sings are zigzags again).

Taylor Swift uses this technique in her song We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. Notice her verses are primarily inverted arches, whereas the completely catchy chorus is almost entirely zigzag. (She gets bonus points for using arches in her bridge ensuring that ALL of the song sections contrast each other)

Listen to the sections of the Sam Smith song Stay With Me. Notice the verse melody is a series of ascending notes that end in an arch, contrasted with a chorus melody that is descending notes.

Use extreme versions of the same shape

Another way to use a melody shape to create contrast between your verse and chorus is to use a more extreme version of your melody shape in the chorus. For example:

Ed Sheeran is an artist who tends to use the same shape in both sections, however his sections still contrast beautifully by making his chorus melody a more extreme version of the verse melody. In his song Photograph, he uses a zigzag shape in both the verse and chorus, but the verse zigzag melody has lower notes that are close together, while the chorus zigzag melody has higher notes that leap between the lower notes.

The verse and chorus of the Imagine Dragons song Radioactive both use a descending shape. However, the descending notes of the verse are shorter and closer together, while the chorus melody uses longer notes that start higher. Take special notice of the descending notes of the actual hook: “Radioactive”, the way it repeats its descending notes. Isn’t that cool?

Don’t bore your listeners with the same notes and melody in all your sections. Use melody shapes to give your verses and choruses distinct personalities. Good luck.

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