Audio enthusiasts have done a great job detailing the many ways that the Beatles’ approach to sound transformed popular music forever. In comparison, we composers have largely failed to show what makes the Beatles’ melodic craftsmanship so exceptional. The more I look into their 200+ songs, the more melodic treasure I find: asymmetrical phrase structures, highly varied repetition schemes, nuanced pacing, vivid text painting, cunning strategies for achieving different kinds of accent, clever cadences, bold chromaticism, and more.
But one of the things that leaves me flabbergasted is the impression that the Beatles had so few “go-to” formulas. Even melodies that use the same basic patterns seem to do something fresh each time. So I decided to look a little deeper.
I picked one of the most common patterns in all melody, the 3-Note Scale, and found a handful of their songs that use it. In this blog, I’ll show you six ways the Beatles used the 3-Note Scale to intensify the expressive power of their melodies. In each case, I describe the effect, break down the technique, and even offer some exercises so you can try them out for yourself.
A QUICK INTRODUCTION TO THE 3-NOTE SCALEThe 3-Note Scale is one of the 24 Universal Melodic Figures, the basic building blocks of melody. To make one, start on any note, move two steps in the same direction, and voila! You get a little scale.
The big question is how to compose with “such a nothing?” So glad you asked! Our first Beatles song illustrates the three main ways to work with any melodic building block. See if you can find them as you listen.
1) Run the 3-note scale forward or backward. (Make it ascend or descend.)
2) Transpose the 3-note scale. (Start it on a different note.)
3) Alter the 3-note scale’s rhythm. (Repeat notes and/or change note values.)
It’s hard not to notice that one of the 3-Note Scales has a lot more than three notes. That’ll be the first effect we’ll explore.
melodic effect #1: Alter the rate at which the notes change pitch.I count five 3-Note Scales in the first phrase of “With a Little Help.” In four of them, each note of the 3-Note Scale is played only once. But toward the end of the phrase, one of the 3-Note Scales balloons into seven notes. This expansion drastically slows the rate at which the pitches change. But don’t take my word for it. Try singing the melody yourself so you can really feel the pacing change.
Without this “time warp,” the melody would sound formulaic, as you can hear when I make all of the 3-note Scales the same length. (Although task-oriented people might actually prefer my version?)Variation #1: Time “unwarped” to a constant speed.
I’ve made a little exercise that lets you toy with the rate at which the notes in a 3-Note Scale change pitch. Just click on the “now you try” link. I guarantee you’ll impress yourself with some of the effects you can produce with this simple technique.
melodic effect #2: Mark out registral boundaries within a melody.
Every melody has a highest note and a lowest note. I know that this sounds obvious when I say it. But sometimes, stating the obvious can lead to new insights.
When we play the same 3-Note Scale up and down, it makes the outer notes into boundary notes.a pair of un & down 3-Note Scale defines its boundaries
Although you wouldn’t normally think of the upper and lower notes of a 3-Note Scale as “high” or “low,” that’s what they become when we play the 3-Note Scale up and down! And once we define registral territory in a melody, we can do three things with it: (1) Stay within the boundary lines. (2) Step outside of the boundary lines. (3) Shift the entire perimeter.
The verse for “Get Back” gives an example of setting up a boundary, then stepping outside of it.“Get Back,” by Lennon & McCartney
The lyrics tell us that JoJo thinks of himself as a loner. And the melody confirms this by using an up and down 3-Note Scale (C-D-Eb; Eb-D-C). It’s not hard to picture a young man upstairs in his apartment. Then on the words “but he knew it couldn’t last,” the melody descends, as if reentering society.
One more example of staying within then stepping outside of a boundary. In the bridge for “Hard Days Night,” an up & down pair of 3-Note Scales sets up the final note for both 4-bar phrases. One of those final notes is located inside the 3-note Scale’s boundary; the other one outside. Each option creates a vastly different effect!“Hard Days Night,” by Lennon & McCartney
This bridge exemplifies strategic songwriting at the highest level. If you feel up for a deep dive into the reasons why click here.
To help explain the third effect, moving a perimiter, I need to tell you about my friend Chad (a masterful composer). Each summer, Chad raises 6-8 hobby pigs. His friends lend him unused portions of their pasture. He sets up a pen for his piglets. Every few weeks, he relocates the pigpen to a new spot that provides them with fresh vegetation to consume and new mud to puddle in.
Listen to how the up & down pair of 3-Note Scales gets relocated (like Chad’s pigpen) in “A Little Help.”“With a Little Help From My Friends,” by Lennon & McCartney
So now that we have some ideas about how to use an up & down pair of 3-Note Scales to mark out a melodic boundary, let’s see if there’s a different way to write “A Little Help.”
My first rewrite works much the same as the original version. We hear the basic up & down pair dropping gradually over time.Variation #2a: Drawing and relocating a perimeter
My second rewrite breaks the boundary more overtly on the word “tune.”“Variation #2b: Breaking bondaries
melodic effect #3: Repeat a figure over and over without transposing it.
Music abounds with repetition. Depending on what we repeat (notes, chords, bars, etc.) and in which context, repetition can produce hundreds of different moods and effects: Affirming or indecisive. Wistful or urgent. Zoning out or honing in. And so on.
I call this next effect the “melodic treadmill.” We can repeat a 3-Note Scale while changing the harmony. Often, the chord progression runs over a descending bass line. This combination produces a sense of moving while going nowhere. When we walk on an actual treadmill, we simply get off when the timer dings. But on a melodic treadmill, the melody doesn’t simply stop. It rallies, pushing through toward something that feels like an arrival.“ While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” by George Harrison
In “Lucy In The Sky,” the push out of the melodic treadmill starts with a pause on “trees” before surging upward to “marmalade skies.” Using another higher 3-Note Scale pulls the whole dreamland picture together.“Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” by Lennon & McCartney
You need to be a little careful with this effect. Depending on which descending bass line you use, your music may sound like a rip-off. I didn’t resist that here among friends. (Don’t we all love Lucy?) The exercise I’ve designed for you shows one way to avoid sounding derivative.Variation #3: Repeat a figure over and over without transposing it.
melodic effect #4: Run 3-note scales in an overlapping sequence.
This next effect, “links in a chain” is quite similar to the “melodic treadmill” in that we hear a series of distinct 3-Note Scales.
⯈ In the melodic treadmill [example A below], the first notes of all the 3-Note Scales match.
⯈ To produce “links in a chain” [B], each subsequent 3-Note Scale begins on the middle note of the previous 3-Note Scale.
⯈ Linking 3-Note Scales in this way makes a scale from the first note of each 3-Note Scale figure. The result is an underlying scale elaborated by faster-moving scales [C].
In “Eleanor Rigby,” the chain of 3-Note Scales feels cumulative. Each iteration adds more dreary information. We feel the repetitive mechanics of her repetitive, mechanical life.“Eleanor Rigby,” by Lennon & McCartney
But in “Love to You,” the chain of 3-Note Scales bursts out into melodic rebellion. Life may go fast, but this bloke will have none of it. He’s going to slow down for a minute and SING!“Love to You,” by George Harrison
Try to imagine ending this vociferous outburst without the final F? The final F is a mark of brilliance. The phrase doesn’t just taper out after the long A. Some people have a knack for commanding our attention until they are done telling us what they want to say. (Do you?) Bravo, George!
The “links in a chain” effect is one of the simplest melodic sequences to write. Usually, just a few “links” in the chain are quite enough; too many can start to sound goofy. (Try for yourself and you’ll hear what I mean.)Variation #4: Run 3-note scales in an overlapping sequence.
melodic effect #5: String two or more 3-note scales together to make a longer scale.
Do you suffer from scale phobia? Apparently, many of my students do. I have yet to see a scale longer than 5 notes in the melodies they bring me. Are they afraid that other musicians will see them as hacks if they write “just scales?” Search your heart. If you harbor this pernicious anxiety, maybe this will help?
A while back, I noticed something interesting when looking for long scales in Beatles tunes. None of the long scales use steady rhythm—all eighth notes or quarter notes, for example. And as I reflected more, I find that the same holds for all melodies. Long scales in a melody tend to use variable rhythm.“Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” by Lennon & McCartney
“All My Loving” is another case of a long scale with variable rhythm. But the real genius here is in the phrasing. On paper, we see an unmistakable ascending scale directed toward the keynote, F. But the phrasing prevents us from hearing it that way. The brackets I marked coincide with the phrasing of the lyrics.“All My Loving,” by Lennon & McCartney
Writing a long scale with varied rhythm to vary “A Little Help” presents a problem: a main feature of this piece is its repeating rhythmic pattern. To keep my variation from sounding too much like a simple ascending and descending scale, I took another cue from “All My Loving.” That scale begins with a short 3-note descent. So does mine.Variation #5: String 3-note scales together to make a longer scale.
melodic effect #6: Break the stepwise momentum at the end of a 3-Note Scale to accent the upcoming note.
We’ve heard the 3-Note Scale in enough contexts to recognize that it’s a remarkably versatile figure. But did you know that some of the ways of connecting the 3-Note Scale to another figure or single note will sound “smoother” or “more natural” than others? I discuss this in more detail in Chapter 3 of my eBook, Figuring Out Melody. For today, let me get right to the point.
The “smoothest” or “most natural” way for the 3-Note Scale to connect to another note or figures is to continue moving by step in the same direction. This is useful information. By intentionally breaking this natural tendency—by leaping in the opposite direction to the stepwise motion—we create a melodic accent.
Connecting by contrary leap is a powerful expressive device. (And it works for any figure that ends with stepwise motion, not just the 3-Note Scale.) Many composers use this mode of expressive misdirection to emphasize important words or add a spontaneous burst of emotion to an instrumental melody. Yet I’ve never seen the formula for the contrary leap written out as a tool that younger composers can use at will.“Strawberry Fields Forever,” by Lennon & McCartney
“She’s Leaving Home,” by Lennon & McCartney
In my variation, I set up the 3-Note Scales to accent every upcoming figure. The resulting melody feels like one of those people who are excited about EVERYTHING!Variation #6: Break the stepwise momentum at the end of a 3-Note Scale to accent the upcoming note.
At first glance, the 3-Note Scale doesn’t seem very promising as far as melodic “ideas” go. That’s because the 3-Note Scale is not an idea, it’s a building block. And as with any building block, the greatness of the end product depends on the insight of the builder.
And now, you know six insightful ways to use the 3-Note Scale!
1) Alter the rate at which the notes change pitch. (Control pacing.)
2) Mark out registral territory within a melody. (Control register.)
3) Repeat a figure over and over without transposing it. (Move without going anywhere.)
4) Make a chain from 3-Note Scales. (Build melodic momentum.)
5) String two or more 3-note scales together to make a longer scale. (Add breadth to a melody.)
6) Break the stepwise momentum at the end of a 3-Note Scale to accent the upcoming note. (Spotlight an important word.)
At some point in this lesson, I bet you realized, “Hey, these techniques will also work with other figures!” Good for you for noticing that! Experiment away, my friend! And if you want more ideas for ways to expand your melodic writing, check out the links below.
Thanks for reading!