The (Short) Alphabet of Simple Songwriting, Part 2

Deeann Mathews
Deeann D. Mathews is an African American author and musician living life in San Francisco, CA
Music

Sep 07,2018

In my last article, we discussed the As and Bs of writing lyrics that people can connect with quickly to understand your message. Here comes article 4 – the As and Bs of writing the music that helps people not only receive your message but ENJOY singing it and spreading it!

Have you ever thought about why the chorus is called the chorus? The chorus is where the choir, or more generally, all the people singing join in. This is the part that everybody loves to sing and CAN sing; this is the part that makes songs last down through the generations. Choruses that stand the test of time tend to follow these three simple rules.

  • They stay within the comfortable part of the average range of the human voice. Most people can manage about an octave, and can stretch two or three notes above and below (more about how to work that in the next article).
  • Rhythms are interesting, but not overly complicated. This is not where a whole bunch of fast runs and complicated division of beats happen – the ideal is to craft a melody that has variation enough to make people want the challenge of learning it, and to reward them relatively quickly with the enjoyment of doing so! “Catchy” tunes follow this pattern!
  • They are in keys that musicians playing common instruments can easily play. Some manner of keyboard and guitars are everywhere, with violins/fiddles, harmonicas, and various horns also common. Thus you will get more musicians able to fall in and enjoy the song with you if you focus on well-known keys. Avoid B, F sharp, and G flat, and on the minor side, stay around A minor, D minor, E minor, G minor, and C minor.

Focus on creating a great Melody A for your main lyrical idea A – comfortable, rhythmically interesting, and in a key musicians can easily work with. You may not need a melody B, even if you have a verse or many verses! Remember how I said in the last article that if you need more than a verse and a chorus for your message, a good melody can solve this? A single good melody frees singers to learn more words. Consider “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In” and “This Land is Your Land” as folk epics that have a ton of verses and a chorus that are held together by one memorable melody!

Suppose your verse lyric is different enough from your chorus lyric so that you really can’t fit your verse into your great Melody A. That means that you need to create two comfortable, rhythmically interesting melodies that work well together. A common way to cement the two together is to borrow a line or two from Melody A to finish Melody B. “Go Down Moses” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” are good examples of this.

And then there are the hybrid forms that can happen when you have a single lyric idea that has four or more lines – in this case, you may need a tune with melodies A and B together! “Arkansas Traveler” and “Amazing Grace” have multiple verses with a tune in form A-B, while Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” is a fine example of an A-B-A tune.

One last thought. There was a composer who engaged in 28 years of work to get his A-B-A tune to where he wanted it, and then to fit it to a favorite poem. In 2023, we will have been singing and playing the result for 200 years. Let Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” be your inspiration – craft your melody (or melodies) to carry your message as far and for as long as it can go!

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