I’d like to talk a bit more in detail about melody writing, and specifically, the rhythm of the melody. Simply put, melody is rhythm plus pitch. The pitch tells us what note to sing, and the rhythm tells us when and how long to hold it. Many times we songwriters play with pitch while turning a deaf ear to rhythm. But it is rhythm, I propose, that produces a more definable melody than pitch alone.
We have several tools to choose from when it comes to melodic rhythm. When we write, we are defining the length of the note, the length of the melodic phrase, and where to begin and end that melodic phrase. We can use short notes or long notes, we can start on the downbeat or before the downbeat or after the downbeat, and we can write a very long or a very short melodic phrase. The key to a strong melody is in the motif. The motif is strong when it can be remembered, and to be remembered, it must be defined and repeated.
As singer-songwriters, our melodies can sometimes be long, wandering phrases of medium length notes. Add to that rather tasteless concoction lyric that is somewhat abstract, poetic, and describing feelings about the common theme of love. The result is more often than not a forgettable song.
Try starting your next song melody by writing a short one or two measure motif. It’s amazing how just a few notes can come together to create a memorable phrase. If you sing the notes to the familiar lyric ‘Yesterday” by the Beatles, it is easily identified. And yet they’re just two notes, but it is the rhythm with which they’re played that makes those few notes identifiable.
As writers, we’ve got to listen to music that is outside of the genre we typically write within. Listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire for a week will help the singer-songwriter bring more groove and rhythmic-oriented writing to our sometimes lethargic styles. Try listening to some punk, or heavy rock, and see just how punctuated you can get your rhythms of your melody to be for good contrast.
If you find that your melodies aren’t very memorable, that doesn’t mean that they don’t contain strong melodic motifs. It just might mean that instead of using your entire bag of tricks at one time, you need to use more repetition of just one or two melodic motifs. Look for the strongest melodic motif in any melody you typically write. Then, try to involve more repetition of that single motif.
To really write better melodies, sometimes we have to put our lyric brain aside. Spend a week or two just writing melody. Put your instruments aside if you find it limits you. Write the melodies in your head if you find your vocal proficiency limits you. At any given time we songwriters juggle a lot of balls with melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyric. Setting a few of those balls down to focus on one alone can be the key to strengthening the whole song.