Our first technique pertains to writing melodies for entire sections (verses, choruses, etc). Coldplay’s melodic construction often has a symmetrical quality to it that feels like a type of “melody cycle.” The way this works is there are often an even set of lines of lyrics set to melody (usually four lines). In the first three lines the melody is the same each time; however, the fourth line finishes the “cycle” by providing an alternate variation on the melody with a payoff aspect to it. This melodic structure has three main benefits: (1) sonically it sounds organized and balanced; (2) this structure is somewhat predictable to the listener so it’s easier to recall the song (i.e. it’s catchier); and (3) the cycle allows for a “payoff” with the final line that stands out from the other lines. Often the most important lyric is placed in this final line so as to put it in the spotlight. The structure often looks a bit like this (with variations available, as discussed below):
The other nice thing about writing in this style, is that if you get stuck on one of the lines (i.e. you can’t think of any lyrics), just use a place holder “dummy line” until the right lyric pops into your head. There’s a funny conversation with Martin from an interview he did with Rolling Stone magazine, where he and co-producer Brian Eno had a dummy line in Death and All His Friends of “I don’t want to watch too many episodes of Friends?” until finally Eno suggested “I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge,” which stuck (it’s at approximately 2 minutes 50 seconds into the song, if you want to listen).
Let’s take a look at a few examples from the Coldplay catalog to see some “melody cycles” in action. In order to appreciate this technique fully, I’d recommend listening to the tracks themselves, or you can watch the video demo I’ve provided from YouTube. As you listen, try to take note of the three (sometimes two) line set ups, and the final line payoff. A sort of jab, jab, jab, right hook approach (that’s a boxing reference, in case you missed it).
This example comes from the first verse of Fix You. The payoff line explains the most prevalent sentiment, i.e. feeling stuck in reverse. Recall, the payoff line has a different melody than the first three set up lines.
Line 1 – When you try your best but you don’t succeed
Line 2 – When you get what you want but not what you need
Line 3 – When you feel so tired but you can’t sleep
Payoff Line (melody shift) – Stuck in reverse
A similar approach happens in Hymn for the Weekend, a more recent track. Martin again uses his signature melody cycle in the first verse.
Line 1 – Oh, angel sent from up above
Line 2 – You know you make my world light up
Line 3 – When I was down, when I was hurt
Payoff Line (melody shift) – You came to lift me up
The melody cycle can also take place in the chorus. Check out Coldplay’s break out hit Yellow. The most poignant lyric “you know I love you so” is placed in the payoff line spot as an echo of the third line in the chorus.
Line 1 – Your skin, oh yeah, your skin and bones
Line 2 – Turn into something beautiful
Line 3 – You know, you know I love you so
Payoff line – You know I love you so
Here’s another variation on the melody cycle from the track Paradise. This is my favorite one. It’s an interesting spin on the technique because the cycle is located in the verse (with a 2 line set up, instead of 3), but the payoff line is a preview of the main hook of the song (“Para, para, paradise”). Not only that, the payoff line itself has a 4 part melodic structure/cycle with it’s own pay off line! Wait, what? It’s like a cycle within a cycle. Check it out:
Line 1 – When she was just a girl, she expected the world
Line 2 – But it flew away from her reach, so she ran away in her sleep (and dreamed of)
Payoff line (with built in second cycle!) – (1) Para-para-paradise, (2) para-para-paradise, (3) para-para-paradise . . . (4, payoff:) every time she closed her eyes
Sky Full of Stars illustrates another way to create the cycle. This one has a little different structure (AABBA). It has two lines that match (AA), then two more lines that are different but match each other (BB), and then the payoff line returns to the original melody to spotlight the final line (A). Even though the hook is arguable “you’re a sky full of stars”, the last line “I think I saw you” really pops given the way it’s placed as the payoff and serves as a secondary hook.
Line 1 (A) – ‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars, I’m gonna give you my heart
Line 2 (A) – ‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars, ’cause you light up the dark
Line 3 (B) – I don’t care, go on and tear me apart
Line 4 (B) – I don’t care if you do ooh ooh
Payoff Line (A) – ‘Cause in a sky, ’cause in a sky full of stars, I think I saw you
Here’s a final example, from my favorite Coldplay song Clocks. This variation is a little different too, since it has 4 set up lines, which then feed into the main hook “You are”.
Line 1 – The lights go out and I can’t be saved, tides that I tried to swim against
Line 2 – Have brought me down upon my knees, oh I beg, I beg and plead (singing)
Line 3 – Come out of the things unsaid, shoot an apple off my head (and a)
Line 4 – Trouble that can’t be named; a tiger’s waiting to be tamed (singing)
Hook – You are, you are
Melody cycles provide a highly musical approach to writing songs. If you are having a hard time writing lyrics, but are very adept musically, consider using melody cycles in your writing to create some really solid infrastructure to write words. Basically, just write 2 or 3 lines that are the same and rhyme (but have different lyrics, of course), followed by a closing payoff line that has a different melody. You can even put dummy lines in the places where you can’t think of a good line, until something acceptable pops into your head. Melody cycles are great for co-writing too, because if you can create a cycle that sounds good (even just humming the melody), two or three people can take turns trying to fill in the lyrics one line at a time. You can also write several variations and then pick the ones you like the best.