How Many Notes Does a Good Melody Need?

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” E-book Bundle
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Bob Dylan - Highway 61 RevisitedMelodies are confusing little beasts. Just when you’re convinced that a good melody requires a nice contour, taking the listener through an octave-and-a-half journey, along comes a Bob Dylan and writes a killer tune, “Like a Rolling Stone”, which just sits there on one or two notes, and becomes one of the greatest songs of its generation. But how many notes does a song need?

Or how about “Free Fallin'” (Tom Petty)? It uses three pitches for most of its journey. Why does it work so well?

Both songs beg the larger question: how many notes does a song really need? And why do we so often talk about melodies needing contour, a climactic high point, something memorable for the ear to latch onto, if songs like these can become such big hits.

And that’s not counting novelty songs that endlessly repeat notes for comedic effect: check out “Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)” by Reunion.

How many notes does a good melody really need?

The cheeky answer is: as many as your song needs.

A better answer is: it really depends on the lyric you’re setting. I like to focus on three different kinds of melodies that depend on three different kinds of lyrics:

  1. Lyrics that describe emotions such as determination, forthrightness, or are strongly-held opinions, work well with melodies that focus on one note, and repeat that note often, as if the singer is trying to focus in, quite literally, on point.
  2. Lyrics that describe love, tenderness, compassion or emotions that arise from a typical “I’ll be there for you” type of lyric, work well with melodies that use an upward leap. The upward leap helps deepen the effect of an emotional word. Such melodies also work well if they explore the outer reaches of the singer’s range. Such melodies will often be the octave-and-a-half type.
  3. Lyrics that are essentially the relating of a story work well if the melody is mainly stepwise, are centered in the singer’s mid-range, and only use leaps to emphasize an important (or emotional) word.

So you should consider the melodies with a constricted range (the “Like a Rolling Stone” type melodies) as being relatively rare. It is actually true that melodies with contour will be more memorable because, like a field with hills and valleys, there’s more to remember about them.

But if you’re up for a challenge, and if you really want to set your new song apart from the other one’s you’ve written, try writing a melody like “Live Like We’re Dying” by the Script (and more recently by Kris Allen), which uses a beautifully shaped melody for the verse, and resorts to a mainly one-note melody for the chorus.

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