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Masterful monotony: the power of the one-note melody

Posted by Bradley Lucy - Head of Music and Voice at PHMG on

You may never have heard of the term ‘one-note melody’ before, but you will definitely have heard it. And while some see it as easy, lazy songwriting, it is in fact, a very powerful way for a storytelling artists to make their lyrics heard – as we’re about to discover.

Little-known but widely-used, the one-note melody combines repetitive melodies which centre on a single note, with static vocal lines where the artist sings at one pitch for a sustained period. It’s been used for decades, dating back to Gregorian chant – a sacred song of the Roman Catholic Church. Sang by religious bodies, we hear reciting tones where the chanting sits on an important note. In this particular occasion, the words are far more important than the music, and it is crucial listeners hear the words that are being said to understand the underlying Holy message.

This method of composition is still alive and well today, with many modern musicians making powerful use of it to get their lyrics heard. Avid users range from musical legends like Morrissey (‘This Charming Man’) and John Lennon (‘She Loves You’), to current chart-topping artists like Dua Lipa, Post Malone, and the queen of the technique, Taylor Swift. Fan or not, there’s no escaping her songs, and the one-note melodies and static vocals have become a trademark of her music. You’ll hear it throughout ‘Blank Space’, ‘Style’ and ‘Out of the Woods’ from 1989; and again in her latest album release Reputation, particularly in ‘Look What You Made Me Do’. Having sold more than 10 million copies of 1989 worldwide; and 1 million copies of Reputation in just four days – making it the best-selling record of 2017 – there’s no denying it’s a proven technique that works.

So how and why is it so powerful? To really see why, we look to a classic rather than a modern track – famous Major-General’s Song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. This complex, wordy, tongue-twister patter-song sits on the same melody throughout, making it easier for the audience to pick up on what is being said. Because the song is so busy, the melody must take a backseat and give the lyrics a platform to be heard. It’s the same with current pop music today, as these repeated notes intensify lyrical meaning, And in the case of users like Swift, Carly Rae Jepson and Hailee Steinfeld, it’s a powerful way to connect with their predominantly teenage audience. The apparent simplicity enhances understanding and mass appeal, while exposing lyrics regarding love, friendship and heartbreak that younger listeners can really connect to.

In understanding the powerful effect of the one-note melody, we come to see how it compares to the way we compose our Brand-Sound-Tracks. Like Morrissey’s, Lennon’s, and Swift’s, our tracks are designed to support the words – compelling copy written to engage and inform callers with valuable company information. This way, the audience clearly understands the meaningful message that’s being put across, and are more likely to act on it. And by creating a unique melody for each of our clients, we’re adding emotion and feeling to our productions in a way that really showcases their business identity.

When it comes to connecting with the listener, sometimes all it takes is one note.

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