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Simple Tools for Better Melodies


A great melody always makes a song more memorable. It sounds obvious to say, but it is amazing how often we put emphasis on other elements of the song such as groove or lyric, taking melody for granted. We might slip into our typical patterns, which might mean that we let our melody be determined by the lyric or the chords we’re playing. At first, this certainly produces songs that work. But after a while, it produces many songs that sound the same. No one song is particularly memorable.

Some genres are driven by melody more than others. From these melody-driven genres we hear songs from which we can gather tools for writing great melodies. The most basic element of a melody is the motif. The motif can be just a few notes or a few measures long. A motif is repeated throughout the section, and a song usually contains a few memorable motifs that contrast with one another. So for example, the melodic motif of the verse will be distinctly different than the melodic motif of the chorus.

We can come up with a melodic motif organically, by trial and error, or by consciously controlling a few techniques. Some very simple and effective techniques are outlined in the course Songwriting: Melody, and explained in my book Beginning Songwriting. The choice to use long notes or short notes, lots of rest space or very little rest space, long phrases or short phrases, and to start the phrase on, before, or after the downbeat of the measure, are all elements of the melody we can control. One of the most common tools for writing dynamic into a song melody is controlling the pitch. But if we rely on pitch alone to create contrast and interest for our melodies, we are turning our back on many other great tools.

Songwriters who are good singers sometimes dilute the melodic motif too much too soon with vocal embellishments. Most often, we singer-songwriters don’t use enough repetition. It is as if we are afraid of boring our listener. But what actually happens is, we very the melody so much so that the listener doesn’t get a clear sense of what the melody is. Aiming to use more repetition can result in stronger songs.

Singers who sing well may face the challenge that even poor lyrics sound good when they sing them. They may have never had to challenge themselves lyrically, and so when pitching their songs to other artists, the bones of the song just aren’t very strong. This goes for melody, too. Getting honest about the bones of the song is our first step in writing better melodies.

If you don’t consider yourself a strong singer, try looking at that as a strength. You can’t rely on your voice to make a poor lyric sound good. A great melody is a great melody, even one sung somewhat mediocrely.

A great exercise to write better melodies is to choose one technique to apply during each song we write. Perhaps the technique you will try is using more rest space in your melody of the verse.  Perhaps you use shorter notes in addition to rest space, and the melody becomes more punchy, aggressive, or energetic. This might inspire a new lyric quality, too, that stretches your style. The more we can practice the single technique in its extreme, the easier it is to see that technique working. So for instance, if you’re going to try writing a melody with short notes and lots of rest space, make sure those short notes are actually short and you are not infusing the melody with long notes here and there. Do this for the whole verse, and when you get to the chorus, immediately use longer notes. This will create great contrast, and shine a nice spotlight on the technique of shorter notes you were using in the verse.  Contrast and repetition, too extreme techniques, are the name of the game to keep the listener interested in waiting for what comes next.

Happy writing,

Andrea Stolpe

Andrea Stolpe teaches songwriting at Berklee Online and the University of Southern California. Her songs have been recorded by Faith Hill, Julianne Hough, and Jimmy Wayne. She is also the author of Popular Songwriting: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling.
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