Using Intervals for Emotion - Part 2

We explore the ideas of song structure, phrase, melodic outline and emphasis, and syncopation. If we understand these, we'll understand how to think about note placement for emotional effect. This is a precursor to exploring intervals in relation to creating a melody for a song, an instrumental, or a solo (we'll do this in the next lesson).

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Hi Guys. Last time, we investigated the different sonic effects of intervals, from innocuous to really clashy, and how the latter sets up expectations in the listener.

We also touched on song structure, which is so important for memorability, and intimately linked with interval choice and their placement in time for emotional effect. Next time, we'll learn about the tendencies of the intervals in the major scale when used in a melody, which occur even without any underlying harmony.

I want to give some more insight into song structure today. First we'll look a bit more at the overall structure of a tune, and then we learn about phrases (ignoring note choice for now). After that we'll consider how to emphasise a tone, and hence how such tones contribute the melodic outline (the "essence" of the melody). Then we'll take a quick look at syncopation.

This knowledge applies to either writing a song melody, or a guitar melody, or for application in guitar solos. This an extract from one of a series of books I have been working on, called "The Wood".

Song Structure

A tune consists of a few sections, which may repeat. The workhorse is the phrase (discussed next) which also may repeat. A section is built with phrases.

The effect created by a section depends on the choice of phrase length (number of bars), the number of phrases and their order of appearance in the section. An even number of phrases of the same length makes the section feel evenly balanced. A long phrase followed by the same length phrase, or shorter ones that add up to the same length, has an evenly balanced feel to the whole, otherwise it feels unbalanced, drawing more attention to the end of this group of phrases.

Structuring Melody - Phrases

Too long a string of notes is hard to remember, especially if there is no recognisable pattern in it. Instead, melody is broken into small pieces, phrases, separated by (maybe brief) silence. The result is much easier to remember.

In a phrase, each melody note starts at some point into the phrase, and has a duration. Otherwise there is silence. This lay out in time is known as the rhythm of the phrase. Note choice is irrelevant. Rhythm is incredibly important for the feel and memorability of music. Pitches are then chosen for the notes in the rhythm. So a phrase is a combination of note (pitch) choice and rhythm. (In reality, a writer often comes up with a phrase, rather than starting with a rhythm specifically).

"The Wood" loosely defines a phrase as a piece of the melody that lasts for one to a few bars. There may be some optional silence from the start of the first bar, followed by a continuous flow of notes of varying duration, followed by silence to the end of the last bar in the phrase. The musician can draw breath during the silence.

While each phrase could be completely different, very often the rhythm is repeated ... note choice may vary in each repeat, but the rhythm is (mostly) adhered to. This really aids memorability. Slight variations in the front portion of the rhythm, while keeping the end of the rhythm the same, still renders the phrase as basically the same recognisable unit. A section may then contain phrases based on a few different rhythms.

Usually the first note of a phrase begins at or near the start of a bar. If it starts at the beginning of the bar, it is also common to steal a little silence from the end of the previous phrase to use a couple of short pick up notes to lead into this next phrase. In the next diagram, each row shows a two bar phrase, repeated. Blue denotes an uninterrupted flow of notes, grey denotes silence. Red denotes pick up notes to a phrase.

The chosen point in the phrase for the start of the last note before silence has a lot of impact on the listener. The strongest point for this note is half way through the phrase. The second strongest point is three-quarters of the way through the phrase.

So, for a two bar phrase, the first beat of the second bar is a strong point for the last note. The next strongest point is the third beat of the second bar. For a four bar phrase, the strong point is beat one of bar three, the second strongest point is beat one of bar four. By coinciding a highly clashy tone at one of these points, expectations grow more for what is to follow.

Melodic Outline - Emphasis

A tone with any of the following properties appears emphasised in a phrase:
  • if it appears on a strong beat (1 or 3 in 4/4 time);
  • if it lasts longer than the surrounding notes (such as a half-note in a phrase consisting of mainly quarter notes);
  • if it is the highest or lowest note in the phrase;
  • if it starts or ends a phrase;
  • if it is accented (louder);
  • if it is syncopated (see below);
  • if it is an anticipation (the last note is a non-chord tone against this chord, but a chord-tone against the first chord of the next phrase).
Any such tones form the outline of the melody, the backbone of the melody. A melody can be written just by having an idea for the rhythm of a phrase and note choices for the outline in that rhythm, and then fleshing out the rest of the notes in the rhythm to embellish the outlined melody (we look at this below and later). In turn, the rhythm may have been suggested from a lyric (or vice-versa).


In 4/4 time, expectation is for a whole note to start at the beginning of the bar, a half note at the beginning of each half bar, a quarter note at the beginning of each quarter of the bar, and so on. Shifting a note of a given duration to start at a sub-division of that duration creates an effect called syncopation, which makes the note stand out more.

Above shows two phrases, each two bars long. Only the first quarter note of the second bar is shown. The rest of that bar is silent.

Blue is a half note. Pink is a quarter note. Tap out the top phrase twice, then the bottom phrase twice, and feel how the syncopated half note stands out. 1 and 3 are strong beats, and using silence on these also creates a syncopated feel.

Now we've talked about phrases, next time, we'll look at how we choose pitches for a phrase's rhythm to create a memorable melody that is perceived as made out of the major scale and centres around the key note.

Hope you found this useful. See you in a couple of weeks, if you're around!

Cheers, Jerry

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

    It's a shame that The Ramones did not know this, they could have been great.
    If that's irony, it's a great comment. Made me smile. Yes, there are tons of musicians that have a great sense of rhythm. We can always find new stuff in rhythm
    dam'n! that's the kind of the article I've been waiting for years!!!)) It really explains how to make a great music, instead of just playing guitar. Thank's the author, I wait for the next chapter))
    Thanks Andrew. I am thinking about writing some articles on rhythm theory later, but will finish off discussing intervals in relation to phrasing and emotion first. cheers, Jerry.
    ok)) and could you show next time how does all that stuff work using as the example some killer riffs of such bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden or another well known ones,please?
    these lessons are hopefully useful generically, and will continue like that, but send me a message and we can sort something out, sure. cheers, jerry
    Jerry, sincere thanks dig the article, really helps me see things in a different light. These concepts might just be what I am looking for. I can play Pretty well, cant right more than a beginning to anything without it becoming boring and obvious to myself. Im going to try and be aware of these the next time I try to write... like maybe now.
    Thanks! That was precisely the reason I got into rhythm and melody. Gave me a framework as a discipline for writing that works well for me. I found listening to songs, melodies etc started revealing a lot more with this kind of understanding. Good luck with your writing. Let me know how you get on! cheers, Jerry