5 Characteristics of Any Great Melody

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musician/composerThere’s not really a lot of difference between the way you write a melody for one genre, and the way you’d write it for another. What makes melodies sound different is the way they’re performed, and the kinds of chords and vocal harmonies you might use to accompany them. This is why I often find myself reminding songwriters to listen to different styles of music. The best songwriters out there have much to show us, no matter what musical world they live in.

To say it differently, the characteristics that make a good country melody, for example are (generally speaking) the same ones that make a good rock melody. And no matter how far back into music’s “fossil record”, you’ll find that melodic construction really hasn’t changed very much.

I’ve listed five characteristics below that describe most melodies written by today’s busiest songwriters. Curiously, those same five characteristics would describe almost any vocal melody written by J.S. Bach, Mendelssohn, Schubert or Brahms.

  1. Most good melodies restrict their basic range to no more than an octave-and-a-half.
  2. Most good melodies use repeating elements. Listeners should be hearing certain melodic intervals, rhythms and other musical shapes repeating throughout the melody.
  3. Most good melodies are comprised of stepwise motion (i.e., move by scale steps), with occasional leaps. Melodies that are too leapy are often too difficult to sing. Good writers use melodic leaps as a good way to generate little shots of energy.
  4. Most good melodies have a discernible relationship with the bass line. There are four ways that melodies can move with respect to the bass: parallel motion (the melody and bass move in the same direction by the same interval); similar motion (both move in the same direction by a different interval); oblique motion (one stays the same while the other moves); and contrary (both parts move in opposite directions.) You’ll want to mix & match these four ways. By doing so, you create a bass that feels almost like a countermelody, and frees up your bass from being overly static.
  5. Most good melodies have a climactic point, down from which it moves to a cadence (a “rest spot”). A climactic point usually refers to a melody’s highest pitch, but not always. A climactic point is a mixture of things: a high note, along with a significant harmonization, and a strong rhythmic placement, like on a strong beat.

It’s fun to put these five qualities to the test. Take one of your favourite songs, and see if its melody exhibits all or most of these descriptions. With a few exceptions, you’ll see that it probably does.

Then take one of your own melodies and see how it fares. You’re going to find that it will take very little to rework an uninteresting melody into something that works really well.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. Numbers 2 and 3 are absolutely not defining characteristics of a beautiful melody. There are plenty of beautiful, famous melodies out there that feature as many wide skips as they do steps. See the love theme from “Cinema Paradiso” or Schubert’s “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel.”

    Repetition, or even sequencing is also absolutely not a prerequisite for writing a great melody.

    • Hello, and thanks for your comment. I think it’s important to remember that good music happens as the result of following certain principles, which guide, rather than rules, which prescribe. Of course there are good melodies that prominently feature leaps, and others that use almost no repeating phrases or structures at all. That’s because good music comes from one’s imagination, guided by principles. For every characteristic of good music that I’ve mentioned on this blog, I can list all the songs that actually don’t share that characteristic. So my comment, for example, that good melodies feature repetition as an organizing design feature is very true, and not a principle I invented; it’s known by pretty much anyone who studies and teaches the popular genres of music.

      Yes, you can find melodies that use melodic leaps more than stepwise motion as a distinguishing feature, but that doesn’t negate the principle that the vast majority of good melodies (in practically all genres) use stepwise motion more than leaps. I think it’s always important to note the exceptions, but not to be led astray by them and think therefore that there isn’t a principle involved. It’s more interesting, in fact, to note the melodies that are exceptions, and then try to understand why they work. In so doing, I suspect we’ll discover a deeper, more all-encompassing principle.

      Thanks again for your comment – I do very much appreciate it.


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