For Today's Songwriters, When it Comes to Melody Writing, Not a Lot Has Changed

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:

When you look at the history of melody writing, and I mean going back centuries, you might be surprised to know that verylittle has changed in what makes a good melody.Good melodies need certain things to keep them from feeling like aimless wandering. And whether you’re talking about the music of J.S. Bach, Cole Porter, Leonard Cohen or Kara DioGuardi, good melodies take the listener on a journey that requires planning and structure.

“Lover’s Concerto”, by The Toys, is a great melody that sounded as fresh in 1966 as if it had been composed in that year. But its melody was composed by Johann Sebastien Bach in 1725. Most of what differentiates music from different eras is style of performance.

If you take a course in the history of music, and really study the music of a composer like Bach, and familiarize yourself with the general rules that Bach used to compose melodies, you might be shocked to know that the same guidelines apply to any style or genre of music, from any era. So what I would say to a music history student who wants to compose in the style of a Baroque era composer from the 1700s, I would say to you: if you are wanting to write fresh, interesting pop, rock, country, folk or any other style, study these basic guidelines, a paraphrasing of advice from Thomas Benjamin in his book “The Craft of Tonal Counterpoint *”:


  • Good melodies are shapes. They can’t be aimless or flat. A melody needs to have a clear goal. That clear goal is often defined as the climactic point, or climactic moment. You’ll find that the climactic moment will happen closer to the end of a melody than the beginning, and that very soon after the climactic moment, a good melody will descend to a cadence point (a resting point.) 

  • Good melodies are not too wide-ranging, or jagged. In other words, if your melody spans more than an octave-and-a-half, it’s probably too wide to show a clear direction. Same problem if they’re too jagged: they’ll lack a good sense of direction.
  • Good melodies are comprised mainly of stepwise motion, with only a few leaps. The stepwise motion makes it not only easier to sing, but easier for the listener to remember.
  • Good melodies have form. And there is a sense that as  you listen to the beginning of a melody, you can start to predict in small ways how that melody might continue. That sense of predictability is not so much as to make the song boring, but just enough to give the melody a sense of purpose and direction.
  • Good melodies often take the shape of the first bar or two, and replicate that shape as an overall structure of the melody.

These are bits of advice that have been given to students of music from several hundred years ago, but isn’t it interesting that these bits of advice still apply to songwriters’ melodies of today? The principles that guided J.S. Bach and his contemporaries in 1725 still largely apply to music of today.

*If you have a strong background in music theory, you may want to check out Thomas Benjamin’s text: “The Craft of Tonal Counterpoint” (Routledge: ©2003, by Taylor & Francis Books, Inc.) ISBN: 0-415-94391-4)


-Gary Ewer

The ideas in this blog entry are the kind of ideas you get in Gary Ewer’s suite of songwriting e-books. Check them out.

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