Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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It’s hard to define exactly what a good melody is because no melody exists in a vacuum. You’ll find that when you sit back and think about the best melodies you’ve ever heard, they were probably accompanied by a fantastic chord progression and probably a killer lyric. In the songwriting world, nothing exists on its own; the value of any one song element comes from its relationship with all other elements in that song.
But that is certainly not to say that you can’t take your latest song’s melody and fix it or improve it. In fact, most finished songs should be the product of writing, and then numerous revisions. And there are some typical problems that arise with melody writing that are easy to solve. And every songwriter, no matter how experienced, needs to look at their melodies carefully, on their own, to see if they’ve gotten the most they can out of their tune.
In my experience, there are five basic errors or issues that arise most commonly in the world of melody writing. Take a look, and see if you recognize any of them in your own writing:
- Good melodies need a memorable shape. There have been successful songs that have dwelt upon one or two notes, or that have been highly repetitious. But in general, you should be able to look at your created melody and hear obvious high and low points in the range.
- Generally, chorus melodies should be pitched higher than verse melodies, and bridge melodies even higher.
- Good melodies usually are a mix of stepwise motion and small- to medium-sized leaps. Stepwise motion makes it easier to sing, and leaps inject melodic interest.
- As opposed to the previous point, melodies that use too many leaps can be hard to sing and hard to remember.
- While too much repetition is not usually good, a good melody will incorporate repeating elements. So find small melodic shapes within your tune and use them, repeat them, modify them, and build with them. These repeating elements are called motifs, and they’re also an important contributor to the memorability of your song.
The main reason I tell songwriters never to throw out what they write, even if they hate it, is that most problems in the songwriting world are easily solvable. But the first step is identifying the problem. Take your latest song and see if they follow the five tips above. If not, I suspect you’ll find the problem is quite easy to straighten out.
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