With a good song, there’s a strong sense offorward motion. How you know that forward motion is there and working for you is by your own sense of anticipation: if you find that at any given moment in your song, you want to hear what happens next, that’s the vital sense of forward motion working for you.
The three main aspects of song construction, melody, chord progressionand lyric – not to mention a strong underlying rhythm – are largely responsible for this motion. A good line from a lyric makes you think about what you’re about to say as much as what you’ve just said. A well-constructed chord progression is as much about the chords you’re about to play as it is about the ones you’ve just played.
So what can you do to make a melody work like this? How do you ensure that your melody snags the listener and makes them want to keep listening?
Contour is a big part of it. If your melody is a lifeless, meandering of notes that doesn’t exhibit shape or direction, your audience will quickly lose interest. For songs, the basic time-honoured shape that works is a large curve, where the high part of the curve happens more toward the end than toward the beginning. That high point is called the “climactic point”. In some songs it’s obvious, in others, more subtle. In “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, the climactic point happens at the beginning of the refrain “Like a bridge over toubled water…”
While it’s true that some songs seem to exist fine without an obvious climactic point, those songs are usually ones where the melodic construction has taken a back seat to a much more important lyric.
A climactic point is a moment where a little burst of energy happens, and then the melody typically descends from there, coming to a rest soon after at a lower pitch. In Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’“, the climactic point is actually a note that occurs many times throughout the verse. But the refrain, where melody, chord progression and lyric all come together to give use those famous words, give us the obvious climactic moment.
A good climactic moment gives the feeling that the song has been building to that point. And just as a good lyric makes you want to know what’s about to be said, a melody’s climactic point is the result of an ongoing build that’s been taking place through the verse, or the chorus. You can feel it coming.
So listen to the melodies you’re writing, and ask yourself, “Does my melody have a climactic point? Is there a moment where everything comes together in a little burst of energy, and then descends to a resting point a little later?” If not, it shouldn’t be too difficult to modify your melody to do this. You’ll find that your song suddenly becomes more memorable, and definitely much more captivating.