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If you are a melody-first songwriter, I applaud you. I think writers that come up with at least the beginnings of a tune as a starting point are likely to have better melodies that are more memorable. You want to have a melody that gets into a listener’s brain and stays there. And for whatever good you can say about your chord progression, nobody walks around humming chords.
But they will hum memorable melodic excerpts. And they’ll especially hum them if they’re catchy (i.e., part of a hook), and even more so if those shapes are partnered with crucial words from your lyric.
Making a melody memorable should be a key concern of anyone trying to write a hit song. Melodies that are complex or intricate have their place, but even songs that use convoluted melodic structures will often use choruses that are plainer and easier to hum, sing and remember. And people will hum them if those choruses incorporate a “hooky” melodic shape connected to an emotional word.
Some examples? Michael Jackson is the king of creating chorus melodies that present the song title as a relentless hook. While the verses are not hard to sing, it’s the chorus that’s always most memorable. And why? He has a way of finding the key word in the text and making it stand out, usually by making it either the highest note, or part of a memorable shape. Think of “Bad”, and you’ll get what I’m talking about. Also, “Billie Jean”, with its repetitious descending shape, and “Beat It” which is one of his more exceptionally successful hooks.
Placing a key word at a significant part of the melody strengthens the hook, because now it’s not just a melodic shape that people hum; it’s a crucial word placed front and center partnering with that shape.
If you don’t usually start with the melody in your favourite songwriting process, I recommend giving it a try. But here’s an important word of advice: don’t fall in love with your melody until you’re finished. Because if you’re smart, you’re going to keep crafting that melody until important key words of your lyric are given an important place in the melodic outline.
Be sure to look your lyric over, and circle words that you want your audience to remember. Make sure those words get placed higher in the melodic shape. Also, key words are important places to add vocal harmonies. If you want a word to stand out, make that the word where you add a couple of harmonizing notes chosen from the underlying harmony. Vocal harmonies have a nice way of making words pop.
The lesson to be learned here is this: if you want people to remember your song, you’ve got to give them something memorable. A melody with an unforgettable shape, partnered with key words in high spots, along with vocal harmonies, can create something relentless that keeps a listener humming your song all day long.
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