How Tempo Affects Your Song's Melodies

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GuitaristFollowing guidelines as you write songs can help you keep on track, and minimize the possibility of your song “failing.” But truth be told, it’s hard to come up with rules and regulations that guarantee the success of a song. And that’s a good thing, because if songs only succeeded if certain things happened, songwriting would be a boring exercise that simply amounted to whether or not those rules were followed. Songwriters need freedom to create. It’s what the artform is all about.

Having said that, we do know that there are aspects of musical composition that tend to be present in most successful songs. For example, it’s customary to assume that melodies need a sense of shape and contour. Most good melodies will move toward a climactic high point, and move down again. That moving up and moving down of melodies is part of what makes them memorable. A melody that sits constantly around one or two notes will need other things to make them memorable: a killer lyric, for example.

All this should get us wondering: how many notes should a melody have? There are songs that use very few. Many blues songs, for example, use repeated musical phrases within a constricted melodic range of a 4th or a 5th.

Other songs will use a much more expanded range of an octave-and-a-half, or even more. (The perennial Christmas favourite, “O Holy Night”, for example.)

Recently I’ve written about songs that hang around the tonic note in the chorus, not moving much at all, and the power and energy that can come from that.

So is there any guideline that songwriters can follow with regard to melodic range, and the actual number of notes a good melody should use?

There is one relationship that composers should be somewhat mindful of, and that is the inverse relationship of tempo and number of melody notes.

As a general guideline, songs with faster tempos will survive quite nicely with melodies that use fewer notes. This principle goes hand-in-hand with other theories relating to songs with fast tempos. For example, the faster the tempo, the less frequently chords should change.

Fast tempos generate a lot of song energy, and it’s usually why we use them. A wide melodic range does the same thing. So if you’ve got one aspect of your song generating energy and momentum, you have to be careful when using another.

If you find that your song has gone beyond feeling energetic, and is starting to sound a bit frenzied or frantic, check first to see that you’ve slowed down the harmonic rhythm. In other words, be certain that your chords are not changing too frequently, as this will sometimes take a song from sounding energetic to the verge of panic.

Then  look at your melody. If you’ve written a high energy dance tune, with a brisk tempo, consider the following:

  1. Keep melodic leaps smaller. They’re easier to sing at fast tempos, and the voice won’t need to do musical gymnastics.
  2. Restrict the number of notes. Ballads are the songs where you’ll want to consider using the wide octave-and-a-half range. Dance tunes will work nicely if the range is kept largely within a 5th, with occasional visits to the outer reaches.
  3. Use vocal harmonies sparingly during verses, and only on emotion-laden words.
  4. To add power, try repeated tonic or dominant notes, especially in the chorus.
  5. Make sure that melodic shape complements the lyric. In other words, put important emotional words in higher reaches of the melodic range, and be sure that the natural pulse of word syllables are supported by the natural pulse of your melody.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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