Melody and Prosody

Create Forward Momentum In Your Melody!

Excerpted from Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting by Robin Frederick. Available at Amazon.com

There's one thing you can say for certain about today's hit songs: Once they start rolling, there's no stopping 'em! Like an express train, they rarely pull into a station long enough for a listener to hop off. Today's audiences love the feeling of being swept along at top speed, falling forward into the next verse or chorus.

Give your melody forward momentum

To build forward momentum into your melody, you need to suggest the idea that there is always something happening or just about to happen in your melody. There are two clever tricks that will help you create this effect in your melodies.

Eliminate pauses, especially at the ends of lines

Today's hit song melodies have very few long pauses. When pauses are used, they're rarely longer than two beats. The only exception is an instrumental break between song sections-between verse and chorus, for instance. Some songs, like Seether's "Rise Above This," even eliminate these pauses, plowing ahead from section to section without stopping for breath.

This is in contrast to the melodic style of previous decades in which long pauses often followed each line. To hear the difference, listen to 1980s-era hits like Glenn Frey's "The Heat Is On" or Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" with its six to ten beat pauses between lines. Then check out more recent hits like "Better as a Memory" (Kenny Chesney), "Everything" (Michael Bublé), "The Pretender" (Foo Fighters), or "Be Without You" (Mary J. Blige). In each of these songs, almost all of the pauses are two beats or less except for section breaks, giving these melodies a sense of continuous motion and energy that appeals to today's listeners. The express train doesn't stop often in today's big hits!

Emphasize weak beats and upbeats

The second trick has to do with beat emphasis. When the important words and notes of a phrase land on the strong beats (Beats 1 and 3), it gives your listeners a grounded, solid feeling. They like this feeling of groundedness but after awhile it starts to feel a little predictable, a little bit stuck. When you emphasize weak beats (Beats 2 and 4) or upbeats (the "and" between beats), you unstick your melody, creating an unsettled, floating feeling-a sense that things are in motion and ungrounded. Mixing strong and weak beat emphasis gives your listeners the best of both worlds; they know where solid ground is, but the melody takes on a feeling of momentum and change.

Use either one or both of these techniques-shifting beat emphasis and eliminating pauses-to add momentum and interest to your melodies. If you're not familiar with these ideas, spend some time studying hit song melodies-counting the beats and learning to recognize where the emphasized notes fall.

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