So How Many Notes Make a Good Melody?

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website. Read about Gary’s songwriting e-books here.


music-clipart4If you study the songs that have made it big over the decades, you start to see certain commonalities: they show an identifiable contour, they usually have a climactic point, they’re usually comprised of mainly stepwise motion with occasional leaps, and so on. A trickier question to answer is: How many notes make a good melody?

Some songs have a very restricted range: “Free Fallin'” by Tom Petty basically uses three notes. “Hound Dog” uses four notes if you don’t consider flat 3rds, etc. But the Star Spangled Banner uses a range of two octaves, with almost all notes between.

The round-about way of answering this question is that if you have problems with your melody, the actual number of pitches you used to create it is probably not the problem. No melody exists on its own; they all interlock with the lyric and harmonic workings of a song. There needs to be something within that melody that supports the lyric and choral structures, and vice versa.

So the real question with regard to song success is not how many notes you’ve used, but how you’ve used them. There’s a theory that if you use too few, your song can be boring. (Not true.) Or if you use too many, the melody meanders too much and can easily become aimless wandering. (Also not true.)

The best advice here is to not focus on how many notes you’ve used, but rather to consider how you’ve used those notes. “Free Fallin'” works so well because of melodic motif: the verse is comprised mainly of ascending melodic figures, while the chorus reverses that motif and uses mainly descending ones. That’s enough of a development to show evolution of a musical idea without getting in the way of the lyric.

Motivic development becomes even more important with longer melodies. A motif is simply a “musical idea” that gets stated and restated in different forms and incarnations throughout a song. It differs from a hook in the sense that a hook keeps recurring in essentially its original form.

If you worry that your melody is too “notey”, or not “notey” enough, stop worrying. That’s not the problem with a bad melody. If you make a list of what makes melodies bad, length of melody shouldn’t be on the list. Consider instead the things you’ve done or not done to make that melody stick in the mind of the listener.


all_6_smallIf you want to learn more about why some melodies succeed while others fail, Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books give you the instruction you need. No melody exists on its own; it needs to partner closely with your text and underlying harmonic structure. Get all the facts by reading Gary’s six e-books. Right now, “Chord Progression Formulas” is being offered free with any purchase from the Online Store.

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One Comment

  1. I noticed singing songs last summer campfire around the campfire that many older songs worked better a capella. I analyzed the situation a bit, and decided that many of the older melodies, like Home on the Range or the Star Spangled Banner seem to define the chord structure much better than many contemporary songs. A generalization, true, fairly consistent in my experience.

    Interesting to think about, although I have no idea how, or even if, it impacts contemporary songwriting. Thanks for letting me ramble…

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