Great Melodies Have Both Predictable and Unpredictable Parts.

melody as predictable as love

Principle #3 in the series, “The 3 Core Principles of Melody.” 

Composers not only need to know when to give listeners what they expect, we need to know when not to. Unless our music is predictable, listeners won’t be able to follow along. But if there are no parts that take an unexpected turn, our music won’t hold their attention.

How good are you at controlling predictability in your music? It’s one of the most important skills a composer can develop. But how? 

It starts with recognizing the most likely thing to happen in a given situation. Why do I say “recognize” and not “learn?” Because we’re not only composers, we’re also listeners. Listeners possess a deep-seated sense of what is and isn’t supposed to happen in music. We pick it up over time through exposure. How else could anyone recognize a wrong note in a song they’ve never heard before?

But there’s often a gap between what we intuitively sense and what we can recognize. So composers need to take what we “just know” and make it conscious.

One way to do this is to “de-compose” a passage of music. What do I mean by that? It’s possible to simplify any song we know down to its most simple form. We might focus on the melody, the lyrics, the rhythm, the harmony, or the form.

This is what I did when reset Adelle’s lyrics “the normal way.” Focusing on rhythm, I re-aligned the strong syllables to fall on strong beats. (See the previous blog post.) This made it clear that Adelle’s unpredictable rhythmic choices are hardly “just for the heck of it.” They are expressive. Not expressive in the sense of being super-emotional; expression that communicates. When she comes in “too early” it means something. When she avoids downbeats and exaggerates upbeats, it means something.


A bit more unpredictability in “Someone Like You”

In the previous blog, we looked at metric gravity. Certain beats feel heavier or stronger than other beats, which feel “up” in the sense that they need to “land.” We also saw how Adelle “plays” with the predictability of meter to intensify the meaning of her lyrics.

The 8-bar phrase is another predictable element in music. In fact, it’s the most common phrase structure, especially when its bars fall into two equal groups. A typical way that the two sub-phrases relate to each other has its own name: “the Period.” In a Period, a 4-bar Antecedent phrase makes a complete statement that doesn’t quite feel “complete.” Why not? The harmony at the cadence may feel unsettled. Or it may be that the first phrase doesn’t feel substantial enough to stand on its own.

For the remaining four bars of the Period, the Consequent phrase “starts over again” (repeating the Antecedent phrase). But it doesn’t repeat the entire Antecedent phrase, just most of it. We adjust a few notes at or right before the cadence so that it will come to a more satisfactory close.

Many teachers use “Oh, Susanna!” as a crystal-clear prototype for a Period. I’ve highlighted the endings to make for easier comparison. The second cadence merely reverses the note order of the first.

Stephen Foster: “Oh, Susanna!”

The verse in “Someone Like You” also uses a Period, but it makes a serious departure early in the Consequent phrase. Bar 5 begins roughly like bar 1, so we’re on board for the entire phrase to repeat. Then a sudden unexpected surge to a high note – on the downbeat – the first downbeat of the song! The three notes in this bar are far more declamatory than anything else in the song. Then just as quickly, as if embarrassed or full of regret, the rest of the verse retreats into the low register to sulk.

Adelle: “Someone Like You”


A few words about the cadences.

One of the most predictable ways to set up a 4-bar phrase is to establish a pattern in bars 1-3, then break it in bar 4. That change helps listeners sense something like “punctuation” – that the phrase is over. The musical term for this is “cadence.” For instance, this happens at “laughing all the way” in “Jingle Bells,” which we looked at earlier in this series.

It happens in “Somebody Like You,” too. Adelle sets up, then breaks the pattern of repetition, but not by changing any notes. (She reuses the same figure once again: E-C#-B-A.) Instead, Adelle stretches out the rhythm of “married now” to make it feel more final. Finality is apropos to end a phrase. But here it fits for another reason, as well. This finality also signals the end of a “phase.” The man is no longer single.

Once again, it’s a choice deeply influenced by the words. The lesson? There are countless ways to break a pattern. Why not choose one that also intensifies the song’s meaning?

How might a composer use music to contrast “you found a girl and you’re married now” with “she gave you things I didn’t give to you?” They seem to point in opposite directions. Adelle’s solution is to invert the melody.



Your Challenge

Here’s the Antecedent phrase for a pretty corny tune. Not saying that it’s “pretty,” as in a field of daffodils, but … never mind. The corny part should be obvious: this is a continuation of the Fritos music challenge from the last blog. I’d like you to try two things here. First, write the most predictable Consequent phrase possible. Once again, continue with same figure we’ve used throughout this series.Then think of some less-expected way to go in the Consequent phrase. There are two things to consider: the lyrics and the melody (including its rhythm).

Maybe you prefer all the enticing flavor boosters that the Frito Lay company uses to drench Doritos? Maybe you still recognize that, in spite of the natural ingredients, Fritos are still junk food? Maybe …?

Whatever you decide to “say,” make changes in the music to intensify the meaning.

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David Fuentes

David Fuentes

Professor Fuentes is a composer, author, teacher, and clinician. He brings over 30 years of teaching experience from institutions that include Berklee College of Music, the University of Iowa, Brandeis University, and Calvin University.

Dr. Fuentes’ music has been performed all across the world. It includes music for the classical concert stage, theater and musical theater, television, art installations, popular music genres, and the church.

A published author, his writing on composition, vocation and the arts, and the place of music in human flourishing has been influential in the development of music curriculum in an ever-changing world.

You can find samples of his music and writing on his personal website:, which also provides a longer bio.

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