How Melodic Shape Can Determine a Song's Success

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:
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You would think that a beautiful melody is what we’re all after when we write songs. But you could make the case quite easily that the world’s most successful songs over the past five decades do not necessarily have melodies you’d call “beautiful.” Like deciding to wear a gorgeous dress with a pair of work boots, success in songwriting is all about how different song elements integrate.

General opinion would probably be that a beautiful melody is “contoured”, with a pleasant mix of stepwise motion and leaps. Such melodies are great partners for an emotion-laden poetic lyric that uses lots of imagery and allegory. But probably doesn’t describe most hit songs, most of which deal with issues of love using fairly direct, every day language, not necessarily poetry.

And in fact, if you automatically default to creating melodies with a flamboyant shape, you may inadvertently compromise the lyric and even the underlying chord structure. There are many factors involved in creating successful melodies. Here are some you’ll want to keep in mind:

  1. Songs whose lyrics describe political or social-consciousness issues, or hold strong opinions (i.e., lyrics that use forthright language and terminology) will make good use of repeating note figures. In such songs, you’ll want to think about plateau pitches: let each successive section of your song dwell around a pitch higher than the preceding one.
  2. Songs whose lyrics describe love, affection, tenderness or compassion will make good use of melodies with a motivic leap. Such a leap is the kind that you’ll want to repeat throughout your song, a sort of leitmotif (a musical phrase that actually represents a person or emotion).
  3. Lyrics that describe a sequence of events (i.e., tell a compelling story) work well with mainly stepwise motion. Save melodic leaps for emotional moments in the narrative.

You should note that lyrics in the first category above can also include love songs that describe a persons determination to “win the love of their dreams.” And keep in mind that songs like this, featuring many repeated notes, can be contrasted nicely by using repeated note figures in one section and a more moving, animated line in another.

All this is simply to say that as always, melody and lyrics are very difficult to consider separately. Lyrics are your main tool of communication to the listener, and melody should always support that message.

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