Thinking about Richard Rodgers’ technique

September 12, 2008

Richard Rodgers

We watched SOUTH PACIFIC last night — it having been filmed in Kauai, which is where I am right now. I have to admit to loving his music and began thinking about his compositional technique for writing songs.

Rodgers seems to start with the lyrics. His melodies always fit the lyrics perfectly. Afterall, his job is to make sure the audience, and especially those sitting in the back row of the balcony, can understand the words. The shapes of his tunes always seem to be implied by the words themselves.

My guess it that the next thing that comes is the bass. Once the melody and the bass are written, harmony is implied. He can either flesh out that harmony or imply it in the countermelody.

The third step is his remarkably effective countermelodies. They draw very little attention to themselves, but the countermelodies contain, in my opinion, so much of the emotion of the song: the non-chord tones, the suspensions, and the mood. They are quite often in step-wise motion and sequential. Play a Richard Rodgers song with only the melody and bass line and, although effective, the result is not as powerful as when the countermelody is added.

As I work on my book on Rufus Wainwright, I can’t help but notice that many of the songs I prefer have countermelodies not unlike Richard Rodgers. They are predominantly step-wise, sequential and offer spicy tones to the prevailing harmonies.

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