Want your new song to be a classic? Writing a memorable melody is perhaps the single most important thing when it comes to writing music that will connect with the listener. So how do you improve your melody writing skills? In this post we’ll look at four techniques which you can use to improve every melody you write.
You rarely hear a person humming drum parts, basslines or chord progressions. It’s the melody that leaves a trace in our minds and helps to easily recall a song.
What makes a good melody?
There is not one single rule that will solve all your problems when it comes to developing melodic ideas. What makes a good melody is dependant on several factors like: song arrangement, instrumentation, rhythm, harmony, tempo, etc. However there are definitely common techniques that have been used over and over again to reinforce the power of the melody and keep hit songs interesting.
You have probably heard that the best melodies are usually the simplest ones, and this is most definitely true. What also plays a significant role when it comes to memorability is intention, emotion and the performed delivery of the phrase.
Let’s look at a few examples of how people have used melodic variations in their songs and what do they do keep things interesting.
The four important things to consider when writing a memorable melody are:
- Call and Response
Repetition and Variation
Possibly the most famous example of a simple melody being manipulated in all possible ways is Ludwig van Beethoven’s “5th Symphony”. This is a perfect example of getting the most out of a very simple starting point:
That famous “Ta Ta Ta Daaaa” is a simple melody using only two different notes – and yet it spirals into one of the most recognized pieces in the history of music.
What makes it so brilliant? Perhaps the repetition of the melody and the power of the performance when it first comes in. Starting from the very beginning and up until [0:40] of the piece you hear nothing but this melody going in a call-and-response form with one instrument answering the other and making slight variations to the original melody.
This makes Repetition the first thing to pay attention to when constructing melodies, if you want your listener to remember your music. For a melody to be memorable it has to be a recurring theme, also known as a motif.
Variation on the other hand is a tool to remind the listener of the original theme and introduce more “action”, as listening to exactly the same thing can get rather dull.
In this record by Taylor Swift called “New Romantics” notice the vocal harmonies in the very beginning of the song:
This is a great example of re-using vocal content and creating a subtle variation. The song opens with a synthesiser playing what will become a recurring motif for the song. It appears again at [1:04] and [2:12] when it is played quietly by the brass section in the background. Then the motif comes back in full force at [2:24], and at [2:40] you will hear a variation: the same melody but now sung, performing a different function as the bridge of the song.
This is a great example of re-using the same melody for different purposes and with different instruments.
Call and Response
To reinforce the point about Repetition and Variation, as well as introducing our next technique, “Call and Response” form (also known as “question and response” or “question and answer”), here’s another tune from a completely different genre. This record is called “Spaceman” and is produced by Hardwell:
The main melody gradually comes in at [0:35] of the track. In order not to give away the melody in full right of the bat it is gradually filtered in. You also hear only half of the melody, which gives away only the “call” of the full call-and-response phrase. Jump to [1:00] to hear the melody in full, the initial Call phrase is now followed by the Response which resolves the tension created by the first phrase.
Call and Response is a way of playing with musical “tension and release”. You create tension by “asking” the question, and then you resolve it by “answering” it. I covered this in more depth in my previous article “Songwriting Now”.
So how do you create that tension and release in a melody? The trick here is to avoid landing on resting tones, also known chord tones. These are the 1st, 3rd and 5th degrees of the current chord. By ending on a passing tone (i.e. not a chord tone) instead, you can create tension that needs to be resolved.
Our final factor is Performance: that ineffable “wow” factor that the performer brings to your melody once it’s been written. We’ll look at two powerful examples, which both also make use of the other techniques already discussed.
The first record is by The Kooks, an indie band from the UK. This band is among my personal favourites when it comes to constructing melodies. These guys know how to play on contrasts. Starting with a simple and restrained verse, their choruses always explode with energy!
Jump to [0:38] to hear the chorus, in this case the reason why this works is the simplicity and the “cool factor” of the phrase “Ooh La”:
Sometimes you manage to write such a cool and simple phrase that your melody turns out to be an immediate hit!
The verse in this record could be considered somewhat unconventional. It moves in 4-bar phrases and there are a total of 5 phrases before the chorus comes in, which makes it a little bit not typical, as the majority of songs follow symmetrical patterns. The verse starts with a few pick-up notes at [0:06]. After two 4 bar sections there’s an extra section added that simply repeats the same phrase before progressing further. The singing during the verse sections utilizes the same phrases with minor alterations, only on the very last 4 bars there’s a noticeable variation in rhythm and pitch to signify the upcoming chorus.
There’s another pretty simple but effective variation during the 2nd chorus. Go to [1:57] to hear how it sounds. The third time around in “ooh la” instead of resolving the phrase to the same note it is instead resolved to the same note but an octave higher. Such a simple variation but it always does the trick!
For our second example of how a compelling performance can add to a melody, listen to this a cappella by Hundred Waters called “Show Me Love”. This record once again reminds us of a power of a simple melody.
Listen to the line starting at [0:09] “Don’t let me show cruelty though I may make mistakes” and compare it to the one coming in at [0:24] “And don’t let me show evil though it might be all I take”. The second is essentially a variation of the first, starting on the higher pitch and descending back to the normal register and making one extra leap on “all” in “all I take”.
You can hear another example of repetition with variation in the end of the short chorus section. Jump to [0:31], the phrase “show me love” is sung three times and each time it is performed differently. The first and second time there a slight variation in notes, while the third uses longer note durations.
Performing a song a cappella also really helps the listener to focus on the words and the message behind the piece.
How to write better melodies
In order to develop better melody-writing skills try focusing on the four techniques discussed in this article. These are universal and chances are you have been already using them occasionally without realizing it:
- Call and Response
Start listening for each of these things in the songs you love and those whose melodies get stuck in your head.
Try to develop a system that works for you and facilitates your songwriting process. Ask yourself questions like:
- Is it “cool”?
- Is it simple?
- Is it memorable?
- Does it stay interesting?
- Are other people going to relate to it and be able to remember it after the first listen?
You might need to recruit some friends to answer the last one! If your answers to each of these questions isn’t “yes”, see which of the four techniques we’ve discussed might help you to improve your melody.
Remember: don’t overcomplicate it! Your melody must also suit your song. It is important not to throw the listener off and make sure you create an overall listening experience that can be easily navigated through.
Take advantage of these four techniques for writing better melodies, learn from the big hits and how they use them, and integrate what you learn into your own song writing process. Soon you’ll find yourself creating catchy melodies first time and producing emotionally powerful and memorable songs more easily than ever.