How to Shape a Melody So People Will Remember It

A melody needs to have shape and a recognizable contour, or your audience won’t remember it. Recently, someone played a song for me that they had recently composed. My problem was, as I was diagnosing it, I had to keep going back to the recording of it; I couldn’t for the life of me remember that melody. That didn’t bode well for its life as a “killer song.”

A simple guideline for you: If your listeners can’t remember your tune, they’re not going to walk down the road humming it. And if they aren’t humming it, it’s not working, and it’s as simple as that. You need to do something that rivets that melody into people’s brains.

For some songs, that’s the job of a hook. But before we even talk about hook you need to take a good look at the melody. Because there’s another word that’s every bit as (or more) important: motif.

A motif is a little melodic (or sometimes rhythmic) idea that gets repeated over and over in a song. It’s the motif that makes a song memorable.

An example? Do you know the song “Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen? The melody consists of many repeated notes, but every 4 notes or so the voice rises by a tone or more. And it’s a constant pattern throughout the song. That “isolated-upper-note” that keeps recurring is called a motif, and it latches onto a spot in your brain and keeps you singing it ALL DAY LONG:

  Ah we’re lonely, we’re romantic
  and the cider’s laced with acid
  and the Holy Spirit’s crying, “Where’s the beef?”

There are other aspects of melody writing that are important to follow. As stated in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, verse melodies need to be pitched a little lower (usually) than chorus melodies, for example. Also, just like you don’t want a melody that’s too flat or even, you don’t want one that is too leapy… that also makes a melody hard to remember.

So take a good look at your melodies, and then take a look at this checklist. Do these things apply?

  • My melody has a discernible shape, and doesn’t just meander around one note.
  • My melody has a recognizable motif, a melodic shape that keeps recurring throughout the song in various ways.
  • The melody of my chorus tends to be more energetic, and perhaps pitched higher, than my verse.
  • My melody doesn’t have too many leaps; and the leaps that it does have are interesting and seem to follow a pattern or plan.

Chord progressions can lay down a comfortable bed for your song to lie in, but it’s the melody that will be the important factor. No one walks down the street singing a chord progression.


-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:
Songwriting tips! Write Better Chords, Melodies and Hooks!.

Posted in Chord Progressions, music, songwriting and tagged , , , .

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