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It’s probably not something you think about a lot: how many notes did you use to write the melody of your latest song? What we’re probably most concerned with in songwriting is keeping melodies within a singable range. Is there a point where we actually use too many notes? We know, for example, that long chord progressions that use a dozen or more chords can start to sound like aimless wandering, and result in a loss of harmonic focus. Can the same thing happen with melodies?
What we should all be striving for when we compose melodies is to create something memorable. It does our cause no good if, once the song is finished, no one remembers the melody. Most hooks are a combination of melodic and rhythmic ideas, so good melodies are crucial to the memorability of a song.
Remembering a sequence of numbers is a good analogy here. When you need to remember, say, your credit card number, it’s a lot easier if you think of it as a sequence of 4-digit groupings. If you simply try to remember a sequence of 16 or more individual digits, you’ve got almost no hope. Four-digit groupings makes it more possible.
With a melody, it’s not actually the number of notes you use that will impair a listener’s ability to remember it. It’s how you’ve grouped those notes together.
If you’ve written a melody that is long, meandering, and displays no recognizable shapes or groupings, it’s going to be hard to remember. Like credit card numbers, it’s not individual notes that listeners remember; it’s groupings of notes.
So for constructing good melodies, remember these tips:
- Good melodies should use motifs – short, easily remembered melodic shapes – and use them throughout a song. Listeners remember shapes of notes, not individual notes.
- Good melodies usually work closely with lyrics and harmonies to create a climactic high point – a melodic “goal” that occurs usually in the chorus. Check your melodies to see if there is an identifiable moment that generates musical excitement. The climactic moment should also be reflected in the lyric and chord choice.
- Good melodies will tend to rise from verse to chorus. Even though verses may, of course, use downward-moving melodic shapes, you should generally see choruses reaching higher than verses. This generates song energy.
- Verse melodies will often (but not always) use shorter (i.e., faster) rhythmic values than chorus melodies. This goes hand-in-hand with the narrative nature of verse lyrics.
- Good melodies will use lots of stepwise motion; i.e., they’ll move from one note to its adjacent note in the scale. Rarely (as in “The Star Spangled Banner” or “Rock-a-bye Baby”, for example), melodies can make good use of chordal leaps. Most of the time, however, people find melodies more singable if melodic leaps are small and stepwise motion is frequent.
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