Why does Taylor Swift write so many one-note melodies?

Why does Taylor Swift write so many one-note melodies?
From BBC - November 7, 2017

It's easy to get distracted by her celebrity, but Taylor Swift is a once-in-a-generation songwriter.

From the very beginning, she's displayed a knack for melody and storytelling that most artists never master.

Take, for example, her first US number one, Our Song.

Written for a high school talent show, it's a fairly typical tale of teenage romance until the final lines: "I grabbed a pen/And an old napkin/And I wrote down our song."

That's smart, self-assured songwriting for someone who was not old enough to vote. Notably, the lyrics insert the musician directly into the narrative - something she developed into a tried and tested trope.

But Our Song also establishes another of Taylor's trademarks: The one-note melody.

These static vocal lines, where she sings at one pitch for a sustained period, crop up on all of her her albums - and increase in frequency when she switches lanes from country to pop.

You can hear it on all four songs she's released ahead of her new record, Reputation, which comes out this Friday. It's most apparent on the lead single, Look What You Made Me Do, where the entire chorus is delivered in a sinister monotone.

But it's less of a cop-out than you might think, and here's why.

Taylor Swift's career is built on being accessible. She might have 10 Grammy awards, but she recently invited loyal fans to an album playback at her oceanfront mansion in Rhode Island. In 2008, when she was 18 years old, she accompanied another fan, Whit Wright, to his prom in Alabama. She regularly delivers handwritten notes and gift packages to her Instagram followers.

Repetitive melodies that centre around a single note are part of that appeal. They emphasise her relatability by mimicking the cadence of speech.

It helps that her lyrics are effortlessly conversational and vernacular. "We are never, ever getting back together" is a clumsy song title but it makes perfect sense in Taylor's brand of teen-speak. The impression is that you are hanging out with a friend, chatting about boys (and it's almost always about boys).

Taylor uses the device most often in verses, shifting the chords beneath her voice to give the melody a sense of movement, in the same way that moving a light around the room casts different shadows.

When the chorus soars up the musical scale, it's like a rush of energy. The emotional highs become even higher. And, as I am not the first to point out, she has a flair for melodrama.

Taylor did not invent these one-note melodies, of course. Gregorian chant, one of the earliest recorded forms of Western music, was predominantly monotone.

"A lot of that had to do with understanding the text - because this is religious text and they want people to understand the words that they are singing," said musicologist Scott Interrante in a podcast on the phenomenon of one-note melodies.

"That's important to think about in our modern pop songs," he added. "It might have a lot to do with the words".

Let's scrub out the word "might". Taylor really, really wants us to pay attention to her lyrics.

"I would not be a singer if I were not a songwriter," she told Billboard in 2014. "I have no interest in singing someone else's words."


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