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Stealing songwriting techniques from Cole Porter’s Anything Goes

I briefly mentioned this song in a recent post. This isn’t the best performance of it, but it will do for our purposes (here’s another recording).

There are some songwriting ideas worth pointing out (and stealing).

1. The lyrics

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
was looked on as something shocking,
now heaven knows
Anything goes.

Do I really need to say anything about these, other than to mention that they’re brilliant?

2. The choice of scale

That verse melody only uses a Major pentatonic scale. That, combined with a three note pattern over a 4/4 time signature, followed by a high-note climax and you’ve got a killer eight bar melody

3. The Structure.

Notable structural elements include an extended introduction and the use of what was a standard form in the ‘Great American Songbook’: the AABA, or 32 bar song structure.

What is that? Simple: take an 8 bar melody, like the one that fits the lyrics above, repeat it with different words ala Strophic form, then throw in a middle 8 bars that contrast in some way, before finally repeating the first 8 bar melody.

None of them are new ideas, and Cole Porter didn’t invent them (though he did use them particularly well), so why not see if you can use them too?

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How to write a melody that works

Everyone composes from different starting points, whether with chords, melody, lyrics or a tiny snippet of an idea recorded months earlier. Sooner or later you are going to need a melody, but thankfully there’ a suprising consensus on what makes an effective melody. So much so that it’s possible to list common features:

1. Note choice. There tends to be a good balance between stepwise motion and leaps – too much leaping from one note to another can sound disjointed, but well judged leaping in pitch can be wonderfully expressive. Interesting non-chord notes are also often emphasised.

2. Rhythm first. try this out on friends: tap the rhythm to a famous tune, then then play the pitches – with the wrong rhythm – to another famous tune. Which will they recognise? The rhythm of course, providing its catchy enough (and most famous tunes do have a catchy rhythm).

What is a catchy rhythm? One that does’t use too many different note values, one that has some repetition.

3. Climax! This doesn’t have to be the highest note, but it often is. Take the verse of Cole Porter’s ‘Anyhing Goes’. – Two lines in a constricted range, suddenly leaping up to a climax on the line ‘Heaven Knows…’

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Ba6U6DNog4]

Yes, you’ll be able to think of melodies that don’t share every single one of those three, but if you’re writing a melody that isn’ quite working, maybe its time to sit back and appraise it. Are leaping between pitches too much? Is there enough rhythmic variation? Too much? Is your highest note at the wrong point?

After the moment of inspiration, a little thought is sometimes required.

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