Writing Multi-Part Verse Melodies

SOURCE / The Essential Secrets of Songwriting by Gary EwerTake It Easy - Structure
You can define a multi-part verse melody in many ways, but the kind of melody I’m talking about is the kind you might find in a song like Eagles’ “Take It Easy“, which is a verse-only song where the verse consists of several short phrases joined together to make one complete melody.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this great song ever since learning of the death of its writerGlenn Frey. What a great songwriter, both in collaboration with bandmate Don Henley (“Peaceful Easy Feeling”, “Tequila Sunrise”, “New Kid In Town”, etc.), and as a solo singer-songwriter: “The Heat Is On”, “You Belong to the City”. Many of his songs sounded like classics the day they were released.
Other kinds of verse-only songs make use of repeating sections. Amanda McBroom’s “The Rose” is a good example, where the first phrase is repeated, then a new section is written, but then ends on a repeat of the first phrase: AABA.
“Take It Easy” consists of a verse that pulls together three different phrases to make one long verse: a verse in ABC form. We might tend to hear the 2nd and 3rd phrases as a chorus, but really it’s just a continuation of the verse. It’s a fine point, but the main difference is that each phrase leads naturally and effortlessly to the next one, with the final phrase ending on a strong cadence.
Writing a song that consists mainly of one long verse is not overly tricky, but there are some points to keep in mind:
  1. The melody benefits from a climactic high point. It’s good to find a spot where your highest note(s) will happen, and it’s often best if it happens in the last third or last quarter of the song.
  2. Simplify the rhythm on the title words. As you can hear, the lyric here gets sung on relatively quick, short note values with lots of syncopation. But when the title words are sung (“Take it easy…”), the rhythm simplifies and the words become much longer in duration. This is an important lyrical principle that applies to any song, regardless of whether or not there’s a chorus.
  3. Keep chord progressions relatively strong and simple. Verse-only songs need the strength that comes from a chord progression that keeps the tonic chord in its sights. In “Take It Easy”, the tonic chord is G, and you can hear the importance of that chord throughout all the progressions that occur.
  4. Use one section of your melody to venture away from the tonic. In a song like “Take It Easy”, venturing away from the tonic won’t be (and shouldn’t be) a complete change of key. In this case, the second section of the song — still in G major — starts and ends on Em, giving a nice contrast to the very prevalent sound of G.
  5. Verse-only songs give lots of opportunities to add other non-chorus sections. In “Take It Easy”, there’s a nice instrumental solo that occurs, but you can also consider adding a bridge, perhaps using the song’s intro as a quasi-bridge — anything that offers a variation and breaks up the constant repetition of the verse melody.
Another good example of this kind of multi-section verse, where each phrase is different and new, is Chicago’s “Old Days” (James Pankow), which strings together four phrases, the last of which is a brass instrumental.
It follows all the same characteristics we hear in “Take It Easy”: it’s got a climactic high point in the latter half of the verse, it simplifies the rhythm on the title words, and the progressions are strong with one section pulling away from the tonic before returning solidly to the tonic chord.
If you’re writing a verse-only song, you can work the last phrase to end with a line of repeated lyric. (“Like a Rolling Stone” is a bit like this.) That way, you give the impression that you’re using a verse-chorus or verse-refrain format, which can strengthen the song’s structure.
Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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