How the Melody Relates to Overall Song Form


Aspiring ∞ Creator
Apr 8, 2018
So, this is half-question and half-sanity check. I...think...I have this sort of worked out, but I wanted to get a read from those who know more than me.

I'm trying to work out how the concept of melody relates to overall song form.

Let me define how I'm thinking of these concepts:

Melody: A pattern of pitches, of particular durations, arranged over a span of time. A general starter length for a melody is 8 bars. Melody is governed by considerations related to tension building/release, generally dictated by departure from and return to a tonic note. In a similar vein, a melody can, as a guideline, be divided in half into "question" and "answer" halves, with the initial question half building tension (with a sort of feeling like asking a question), and the latter half resolving the tension (i.e., answering the question). (Everything after the first sentence was paraphrased from this excellent 1/2 hour video.)

Song form: There are many of these. Let's take for example something like Verse/Chorus/Bridge, common in current popular music (i.e., verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus).

Now, how do I put these concepts together?

The initial thought I had after the video was that clearly, you would have a single melody that starts at the beginning of the song and carries through to the end. But that won't work, because obviously songs are much longer than 8 bars. Do we stretch the melody to cover the whole thing, then? No, thinking of the songs I can recall offhand, they don't sound like that's what they're doing. They sound like multiple discrete melodies, one per instrument for each section, repeated at different times.

Also, this seems applicable enough for your lead (in this case, a vocal), but what if your song has other items in it--maybe there are drums and some chords, at the least, happening as well. Do they have their own melodies that have to fit with the main one? Well, there can be a sort of tension/release feeling to the chords, but it seems like a chord progression can be quite short, or it can be longer. So the degree to which the video's melodic principles apply to chords seems...variable. I've heard chord progressions that seem to depart from and return to a tonic note, and I've heard ones that don't. Drums are in sort of a similar position. They aren't generally tonal, but there can be a tension/release element to them also...maybe.

With all that as a basis, my current thinking is that:
  • The primary melodic element in a song is the vocal. (In a non-vocal composition, this would be whatever the lead instrument is, but we're talking about songs here.)
  • At any one time, there should only be one primary melody happening. (Or, if there is a melody in another instrument, it would have to be that instrument shadowing the primary one, possibly peeking out on its own at various unintrusive times. It should probably also be quieter.)
  • When the vocal isn't in the spotlight, another instrument may take center stage in its own melody.
  • Each segment of the song (verse, chorus, bridge) may be characterized by its own lead melody.
  • Generally, chord progressions and percussion patterns can be thought of as simple repeating patterns that don't have to follow the melodic guidelines for tension/release/resolution outlined in the video. Though I suppose if they were to hit the tonic at the same time as your lead at the end of the song, that would be a good thing?
The song as a whole also has tension/release considerations, because you probably want the song to finish with a feeling of resolution that it doesn't find at the end of its verses/bridge. I suppose you would approach this melodically by only allowing the chorus melody to actually resolve to the tonic. The verse and bridge melodies could end on other notes so that the song will continue moving forward in search of resolution.

Apologies for the text wall. If anyone has thoughts on any of the above, I'd be very interested in reading them!
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Passionate Fan
Jun 27, 2019
That video is really only discussing melody as it relates to the classical era and a sizeable chunk of the romantic era. If you want to compose like Haydn and Mozart, then the information that it presents is a good starting point, but nothing more. Of course, it's entirely possible to transplant classic-era melodic practices into the modern era (I do), but it's important to know that it's not the end-all-be-all of melody writing.

At any one time, there should only be one primary melody happening.
Well... only if you want one primary melody. The development of western harmony was the direct result of experimenting with vocal polyphony, or writing for multiple simultaneous melodies. And you occasionally hear this in pop music, such as near the end of that He-Man song by 4 Non Blondes.

Or for an older example, in the below video, from the beginning to about 0:55, each of the three singers takes it in turn to sing three different short melodies. However, from 0:56 to about 1:11 all three melodies are sung again, but layered over top each other in polyphony.



Aspiring ∞ Creator
Apr 8, 2018
Thank you! I think this might be indicative of the disconnect I've been seeing while researching. When you look up music theory online, the predominant material you come across are resources related to the more classical theory. On the other hand, you also have YouTube videos where folks expound on making music with little to no theory knowledge...but nevertheless go on to, easily or with more apparent difficulty, make triad chords out of major thirds and perfect fifths. Of course, it's not necessarily that they're being dishonest or anything--having grown up in a particular culture, the "rules" of its music are likely in your ear to such an extent that you'll instinctively follow many of them because you think it sounds good. That's where your "ear" comes from. It just makes it hard to know exactly how many of the older practices people still follow. I'll have a look at some more current music and get an idea from there.


Aspiring Fan
Jul 21, 2018
interesting discussion - here's my unconnected ramblings on this:

The musical 'rules' and the song form are derived from the compositions, not the other way round. A good (experienced) composer doesn't follow any rules. He/she writes what he/she finds musical, and then the theorists analyse the music and find the 'rules'. As a beginning composer it is of course a good thing to follow some rules in harmony and form, but eventually you just write what you feel like - even if it most often conform to some rules anyway. Sometimes, you end up creating something entirely new though.

The verse/chorus/bridge form has slowly evolved as a good way to keep a song interesting. Some Bob Dylan songs has just verse-verse-verse etc. and nothing else (called strophic form), but you have to have a really good lyrics to pull that off, and even then it easily gets boring.

Today you often have: verse-prechorus-chorus-verse-prechorus-chorus-bridge etc. and often even an extra instrumental part that is not exactly like any of the other parts (at least many Japanese pop songs fits this, I've analysed a lot). Earlier pop-songs often only had verse-chorus and maybe a bridge.

A melodic idea is said by some to be a string of notes that FEEL connected and closed. I've often wondered what the theoretical relationship is between verse-chorus (in melodic terms, not lyrical), but except that they preferably contrast and that the chorus often has a stronger, more recognisable/singable melody, I don't know. I guess if the composer says that they fit together, they do. I think Frank Zappa once said, that some otherwise unrelated parts fit together as a song, because HE SAYS SO... - But if you want most people to follow your musical ideas, it might be a good idea to adhere to some well known form.
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