Why is it that I hear the term “killer chord progression” all the time, but I hardly ever hear anyone talk about a “killer melody.” Frankly, as long as your chord progression merely works, you’ve got something that can produce a hit song. But melodies – they have to do more than work. They need to be carefully crafted and honed. Chords, like landscape, can be beautiful, but if you place a lousy building on a beautiful field, no one will even notice the field. The melody will always get a lot of attention because, coupled with the lyric, it’s the way that we communicate to the listener.
So what can we do to ensure that our melody is more than something that simply works?
Melodic structure of course depends on the type of music, but there are some shared characteristics that exist no matter what the genre. Here are five important aspects of good melodic construction that seem to be common to all genres of music:
- Good melodies usually need some sense of contour. By contour we mean a recognizable shape that is easy to remember. While this is not always true, you’ll find that more often than not, the melodies that are easy to remember are comprised of shapes that are somewhat distinctive. Check your melody: Does it have a climactic high point? Do verse melodies tend to rise toward the chorus? Most good melodies usually do.
- Chorus melodies are generally higher in pitch than verse melodies, and bridge melodies often move the range even higher. This pattern of successively higher melodies ensures that energy and momentum grow as the song progresses. Check your melody: Does your bridge have some of the song’s most exciting moments? Is there a noticeable design within your song of moving the melody higher as you move from verse to chorus to bridge?
- Good melodies use mainly stepwise motion. Melodies should have a healthy dose of stepwise motion (i.e., moving to the next note above or below) The stepwise aspect makes a melody easier to sing and communicate ideas. Check your melody: Do you notice that your melody uses mainly scale-wise passages, with only a few leaps? That’s what you want, because the stepwise motion, along with making a melody easier to sing, helps to make it easier for listeners to remember.
- Good melodies will use occasional leaps. And where should those leaps be? Upward leaps should mainly occur on emotional words, while downward leaps can be used to help dissipate energy. Check your melody: While a melody should use lots of stepwise motion, check to see that you’ve used leaps on words that will have the strongest effect on the listener.
- Good melodies use repeating patterns. This is a crucial part of making a melody memorable. Repeating melodic patterns will constantly create recognizable forms and structures. Without them, songs become long run-on sentences that bore the listener and make songs forgettable. Check your melody: Do you see shapes within your melody that appear, even in a modified form, in other parts of your song? This kind of “motivic” use and development throughout your song is vital if you want your audience to be humming your song tomorrow.
A good melody usually needs to be honed and polished in order to adhere to these criteria. Take the time to put a microscope on your melody once you’ve written your song, and give it its best chance for making a solid impact.