Can't Choose Between Two Melodies? Use Them Both

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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One way to compose a new song is to come up with a chord progression, improvise a melody above it, and then apply a lyric. You can modify that idea somewhat by creating a second melody, so that you actually have two different melodies, both of which will work with that chord progression. One can serve as a verse, the other as a chorus, but try this: use them both at the same time.

Two SingersI’m not really talking about a duet here. Traditionally, duets are really one melody that’s harmonized by the other singer. But I’m talking about two seemingly unrelated melodies that happen to work together. (Think of “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” by the Guess Who.)

The idea of two melodies being used simultaneously is not new in music. For hundreds of years composers have been using what are called descant melodies. Descants are generally sung or played above the main melody. For example, composers of hymn tunes will often create a descant melody for the final verse of a hymn.

A descant has the effect of increasing song energy. It does this by giving the listener one more thing to listen to, one more thing for the brain to process. It makes a song “busier.”

Creating a second melody that could work with the first one means you have to write something that works with the chord progression, but also works with the original melody. That means you need to go note-by-note to make sure that the two melodies are compatible. And the second melody does not necessarily have to be higher in pitch than the first one.

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. In general, a second melody does not need to have the same captivating quality of the first one. But if you plan to use one as a verse and the other as a chorus, you’ll need to work to make that second melody every bit as interesting as the first one.
  2. If your main melody is comprised of shorter, faster notes, create a second melody that uses longer note values; or vice versa.
  3. Stagger phrasing points between the two melodies. If your first melody has a resting point in the middle, for example, use that moment to have more activity in the second melody. The different rhythmic activity between the two melodies increases the ability of the listener to hear each melody separately, which is what you want.
  4. A second melody gives great opportunity to apply a second lyric. If you’re using both melodies in your chorus, this gives you an opportunity to give two opposing viewpoints, or use one lyric to support the other lyric.

I’ve done up a quick instrumental MIDI example to show what a second melody can do for you. You’ll hear a 4-bar flute melody over a standard progression. Then you’ll hear it repeat with a french horn melody woven in.

MIDI EXAMPLE – CLICK HERE (Opens in new window)

When the flute is most active rhythmically, the french horn uses longer note values. When the flute has longer notes, the horn uses shorter ones. In general, the flute is more active than the french horn.

Remember that since adding a second melody increases song energy, you’ll get the best effect by using a double melody near the end of your song.

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