A Good Melody Needs a Plot Structure

Idea: A good melody needs the same tension structure as a novel’s plot.

I’ve already argued that a melody is a story of a journey. In the previous post, furthermore, I argued that a good melody needs structure and surprise. Now, let’s put the two together: the structure a good melody needs is the structure of a plot.

A plot curve

A plot has a beginning, builds to a high tension point (a climax), then ends with a denouement (a low tension point).  A melody needs to do the same. And the way a melody does this is primary through higher and lower pitches.

The higher a melody goes, the more tension it embodies. The lower it goes, the more it releases the tension. There is a kind of parallel here between building and releasing potential energy. The buildup of potential energy — of tension — happens as the melody rises, and the release of potential energy — the relaxing of tension — happens as the melody falls.

The melody of “Sound of Silence” illustrates this structure perfectly. Let’s use the Disturbed cover again, so the beautiful harmonies of the original don’t distract us.

There is one melody I know that violates the rule that you build tension by going higher. That is the melody of “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” which actually manages to reach its tension high point as the melody drops into its lowest notes.

It is a mystery to me how it achieves this. But it remains a good melody precisely because it builds tension to an extreme, then relaxes it, just like a good plot.

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