So, you love your song, you’ve spent days working on the lyrics and the chords, you sing a melody and record it and TADA! The song is finished. You listen to it and play it to people and it’s OK but it’s not ‘grabbing’ people. They can’t put their finger on what the problem is. It sounds OK, nice or worst of all ‘pleasant’. How are we meant to spot the weaknesses in our melodies? It’s like trying to draw with smoke. It’s intangible isn’t it? Either it’s catchy or not. We either nail it or we don’t. Well I wonder if there aren’t a few areas worth looking at to improve our melodies. Let me try to explain.
A melody is a series of notes in time.
Simple isn’t it? No, not really.
When I analyse and try and improve my melodies I look at the following attributes.
- The tension and resolve in my note choices
- Which beat I start each melodic phrase on
- The contrast in range and rhythm between sections of the song
- The length of the melodic phrases
Let me expand a bit. The tension and resolve in melody is absolutely fundamental to creating something special. If each note of the melody lands on one of the notes in the underlying triad then it can seem too ‘nice’ or ‘pleasant’ or God forbid- boring. Put simply, if you’re playing a C major chord and you sing the note C, E or G it fits, but can sound too, well…. Blah! Conversely, if too many notes of the melody lie outside the chord below and don’t resolve to where the listener’s ear wants them to go then the melody can seem ‘uncomfortable’ ‘challenging’ and more importantly- hard to sing and to remember.
Let’s take ‘Yesterday’ as an example. The first note of the song (‘yes…) isn’t in the chord below (it’s a second). When this note resolves to the root of the chord (…terday) the listener feels that tension resolve. Ahhh! Feels good doesn’t it? Why not have a look at one of your melodies and see how many notes fit the chords too closely. The notes that build the tension are an important ‘rub’ or ‘grit’ that stops a melody sounding too neat and possibly boring. Does your melody have tension and resolve?
The beat you start the melody on is really important. The earlier you put it, the more momentum and energy the melody will have. Notice how in Katy Perry’s Firework the melody in the verses starts on the second beat of the bar so it feels like the music leads the melody. However, when we get to the chorus the melody leads the chords. Here, it starts with a pickup on the third beat of the bar before the chorus (baby you’re a….). This brings excitement and momentum to the chorus. Also listen to how the chorus melody works primarily with stresses on the beat baby you’re a fire…. These kind of melodies could be described as ‘statement melodies’. They have confidence (especially married to the ascending chords). Why not have a look at one of your melodies and see whether you start each section on different beats? Altering the start point of your melodic phrases is a useful way of giving each section an identity.
The contrast in range between sections of your song is also worth looking at. Often the chorus of a song has the highest notes. This helps it stand out and catch our attention. Also have a look at the intervals between your notes in each section. If one section has a lot of intervals that are one note apart then to contrast that with larger intervals in the next section can be very effective in creating melodic identity. A good example is in The Beatles ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. The verse has a lot of single step melodies, the bridge has a larger intervallic leap (do you need anybody…..) this is effective in adding interest and variation. It’s worth mentioning the verse starts on the first beat and the bridge starts with a pick up on the 3rd beat of the last bar. This is the same trick as Firework. Maybe I’m onto something? Both songs also have a strong shift between high legato notes in one section and lower staccato phrases the other. Does your song alter the rhythms between sections like this?
Finally, the length of melodic phrases is pretty vital. If all the phrases in your song are the same length it can get boring. It’s a bit like. If I wrote. Each sentence. the same length. It would get. Quite boring. And predictable. Quite quickly. Often the hooks of successful songs are one are two bar melodic phrases as they can be repeated lots of times! The shorter melodies are often more memorable (with many many exceptions!). Most writers seem tied to writing melodic phrases that are 2, 4 or occasionally 8 bars long. Why not try a 3, 5 or 6 and a half bar melodic phrase? It could keep the interest of the listener.
I’ve only scratched the surface here of the important attributes of a successful melody. Perhaps the most important of all is writing a melody that has a ‘clear sense of direction’. A meandering melody undermines the power of a song like nothing else! It’s like watching a public speaker constantly referring to their notes or losing their place. The listener doubts the veracity of what they are saying. The other massive part of the equation is how well the melody supports the lyric. Perhaps we’ll explore that another time.
Keep on writing!