Want the best setup for your big catchy chorus? Work on your conversational skills – your conversational verse melody skills, that is.
Editors, artists, and producers will tell you that they’re looking for or trying to create that next hit chorus — or, at the very least, one that resonates with their fans. As a songwriter, I’ve been lucky enough to write my share of chart-topping choruses. However, it took a lot of trial and error to discover that the success of a chorus often lies in the preceding verse. And, more specifically, by writing a melody to conversational.
Today’s music scene is dominated by the verse/chorus structure where great writers understand that the job of the opening verse melody is to invite the listener. Whether your musical heroes are The Beatles, John Prine or Taylor Swift, chances are you’ve heard a constant stream of conversational melodies without realizing it. The verse melody sets the mood and tone of the song. That’s it. You don’t want to say too much too early in the song.
Think of it this way: it’s like going on a first date. You make a good conversation, but you’re not going to tell your whole life story in the first few minutes. You want to keep a little mystery for the following dates. If you create a verse melody with a huge note range, you have nowhere of emotional interest to go when you hit your chorus. And tug at the heartstrings, that’s what a choir is supposed to do. It gives you the feelings: heartache, longing, joy, celebration, longing.
Discover the verse melodies of Adele’s “Hello” or “Unforgettable” by Thomas Rhett. Both songs spend the majority of the verse oscillating around a three-note melodic scale. In my own Grammy-nominated song “Beautiful Mess,” sung by Diamond Rio (shameless take), the entire first two lines of each verse section are limited to just two notes. The same goes for the opening melody of “I Am The Walrus” by the Beatles. Two grades. If you think a few notes aren’t enough to write an interesting verse melody, check out the classic jazz song “One Note Samba”, written by Antônio Carlos Jobim. Notice how creatively he stretches a single repeated note over an entire half verse!
So how do you create a compelling melody with so few notes at your disposal? Fortunately, the selection of melodic notes works in tandem with other musical elements. Rhythmic patterns, groove, syncopation in the right places, and harmony all contribute to a total sound package.
Just listen to syncopation masters Maroon 5 as Adam Levine sings “She Will Be Loved.” The verse melody does not have a wide range of notes, but Levine keeps the melody both conversational and exciting by adding a syncopation to the back half of each verse. The words in bold below are all sung on the downbeats.
beauty queen of only eighteen
She had a hard time with herself
Another effective technique for creating a catchy conversational verse is to incorporate the Tresillo beat in your melody. Tresillo is a Latin music term meaning three over two beats. Listen to “Craving You” by Thomas Rhett. Can you hear how the bolded words mimic the feel of a triplet?
Every time we must say goodbye
I count up to we say hello
1 – 2 – 3 we must 1 – 2 – 3
I count 1 – 2 – 3 we say hello
Incorporating this type of rhythmic pattern into your songwriting will instantly increase the hook factor in your verse and keep it conversational. As we navigate the next year of American songwriter articles together I will cover more ways to boost your melodic writing.
So remember that the best songs set up their choruses to connect the listener with the big emotion. Whether you feel like crying or dancing, it’s usually the chorus that grips your heart the hardest. Starting your songs with a conversational verse melody and then introducing a greater melodic range into the chorus will infuse your songs with maximum emotional impact.
Whenever I learn a new technique, I immediately implement it in my writing. Here’s my challenge for you the next time you write: deliberately limit yourself to a melodic range of three or four notes in your verse. Experiment and see where it takes you. Am I suggesting that you do this on every song you write? Never! However, it is a powerful tool to master. Immerse yourself in it. Make it part of your musical DNA.
Clay Mills is a six-time No. 1 hitmaker and multiple Grammy-nominated songwriter. His songs have been recorded by major country, pop, rock, dance, bluegrass and gospel artists. His voice and songs have found their way into national advertising campaigns and movie soundtracks. He co-founded SongTown, the world‘s leading songwriter education site, along with fellow bestselling writer Marty Dodson. Visit SongTown.com for 10 free videos.