Music Theory and Song Writing



Ron Irving, Harbourside IT Songwriting Instructor, had this to say in Canadian Songwriter’s Magazine


Writing Melodies that Stick – And Stick Out!
Put tried and true techniques to work for your next memorable song

By Ron Irving

We often use words like “catchy”, “hooky” or “infectious” when describing a good melody. “I can’t get your song out of my head” are words songwriters truly love to hear. when you remove the lyrics from a song you are left with a chord progression and notes that go up and down in a variety of rhythms.

To quote Quincy Jones, you should be able to “Go to the piano and play the melody with one finger!” Consider the Canadian classic song, Anne Murray’s “snowbird” written by Gene MacLellan. the melody is dead simple and has a lot of repetition. Repetition is a song- writer’s friend because it always takes the audience a few listens to get into a song.

One very attention-getting device in melody writing is the melodic leap. A great example is the timeless “Somewhere over the rainbow” which opens with an octave leap, “Somewhere over the rainbow.” Lennon and McCartney used the same technique in she’s a woman, which opens with, “My love don’t give me presents” (see diagram).

Both songs get the listeners attention right from the get go. It’s usually best to keep the melody contained to one octave give or take a note or two at the top or bottom if you want to write songs for other artists to record. why? Because many popular singers have cool and interesting voices with very limited ranges. don’t be fooled when you hear songs like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” with Whitney singing up in the stratosphere. Check out the original version by the writer, dolly Parton, and you’ll find a very simple, sing-able song. It’s also a good idea to save the highest notes, the “money notes” as David foster calls them, for the chorus.

The chord progression is the foundation the melody rests on. Learning to play popular songs and analyzing them is a great exercise for aspiring songwriters. Hit songs often have “tricks” like an odd unexpected chord or a bridge that goes to another world. the old adage that “there is nothing new under the sun” certainly applies to songwriting. for example, “Last Kiss” first released in 1961 by Wayne Cochrane and then covered in the 1990’s by Pearl Jam is based on a 1 6 4 5 chord progression. Fast forward to the Leona Lewis smash, “Bleeding Love,” take away the killer production and you are left with the same simple 1 6 4 5 chord progression. It’s also noteworthy that “Bleeding Love” has a hooky melodic leap downward on the chorus, “Keep bleedin’ keep keep bleedin’ love.”

Another key element that is so important in the hit songs we hear today is in the variation of the rhythm. By that, I refer to the number of notes per bar or syllables per line in the different sections of a tune. Pop music is all about “I got rhythm!” drum loops, super simple bass lines, and very few chord changes anchoring melodies that often don’t “soar” are common place in today’s hits, so how do you keep the listeners’ attention for three to four minutes? Change the rhythm.

The Mylie Cyrus hit “The Climb” topped both the pop and country charts and is a great example of a song with a very simple chord structure, a catchy melody and a chorus that stands alone and stands out. Have a listen to the song and you will hear a verse with just enough melodic repetition followed by a pre chorus with a couple of sweet chord changes and less notes/syllables per line than the verse preceding it — then BAM! the chorus accelerates with far more notes/ syllables per line “Always gonna be another mountain, always gonna wanna make it move” etc.. “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry is another example of the rhythm changing from verse to pre-chorus to chorus while the underlying bass and chord changes stay pretty much the same. Current country songs from Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean often use similar techniques — few chords, lots of rhythmic changes between the various sections of the song and not much in the way of a memorable melody.

In my view a great song starts with a great melody that comes from the heart and sparks an emotion in the heart of the listener.

-Ron Irving’s songs have been recorded by over 100 artists worldwide in seven languages including cuts with Anne Murray, Michael Buble, Jennifer Rush, Asian stars Jacky Cheung and MINK, One More Girl, Lisa Brokop, Terri Clark, Lee Greenwood and many others with awards for Song of the Year from both SOCAN and the CMPA. He’s currently on the faculty of the Harbourside Institute of Technology teaching songwriting.