It never ceases to amaze me how similar melodies are, no matter what genre, or even historical period, you examine. There really isn’t much difference between a good melody by Bach, and a good melody by Bob Dylan. Performance style accounts for the main difference. This means that if we follow the same guidelines Bach followed, we’ll get a well-structured melody. Here are five of those guidelines.
- The interval between your highest note and lowest note should not (or rarely) exceed an octave and a half. (Not including any improvised melismas or other melodic variations.)
- Melodies should contain repeating elements – certain intervals that recur, rhythms you use consistently, and so on. This adds a sense of form and structure specifically to your melody, and also to your song in general.
- Melodies should be mainly comprised of stepwise motion, with occasional leaps for energy and interest. Not only is it easier to sing, it’s easier for listeners to remember.
- Always be aware of how the melody line moves in relation the bass line. There are four possibilities: parallel motion (both parts move in the same direction by the same interval); similar motion (both parts move in the same direction by a different interval); oblique motion (one part stays the same while the other moves); and contrary (both parts move in opposite directions. The ideal is to have a good mixture of all four possibilities between the bass line and melody. Applying this guideline means you need to give active thought to your bass line – always a good thing!
- Most melodies will benefit by having a climactic point, down from which it moves to a cadence (a “rest spot”). A climactic point is usually the highest note, but also refers to the moment of highest energy, which may not be the highest pitch. Think of the refrain in Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” – the climactic point is in and around the word “times”, and the line then descends to a cadence- i.e., the end of the phrase.
All good melodies work hand-in-hand with the lyric. So decisions regarding specific choices of pitches and rhythms will need to use lyric as one of the main determining factors. But beyond that, applying the guidelines above will ensure that you’ve got a great melody that’s really got a chance of being a winner.
Gary’s written six songwriting e-books designed to get you writing the songs you’ve always known you could write. It examines some of the world’s best songs, and shows you why they work, and what you can do to get your own songs sizzling! Read about those books here.