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Of all the words that we can use to describe melodies (shape, range, length, etc.), there is probably no one characteristic that is as important as repetition. Most successful melodies, melodies that that attract our attention and are most memorable, are conglomerations of shorter melodic ideas brought together to form one melody. Sometimes this sense of repetition can be very obvious, such as the repetitious fragments that go together to form “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, while for other songs the sense of repetition is more subtle, using melodic range as its most important formal construct: “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
I mentioned “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a previous post as an example of a song with a notably beautiful melody. Repetition plays a vital role in its melodic construction. The song starts with a large leap upward, followed by a short sequence of stepwise notes. You’ll notice that each phrase of the verse copies this general idea.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” uses repetition sparingly. Each verse is comprised of a long, meandering melody ending with a refrain. In this song, repetition on the micro level (the kind we see in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) is not important. Range is, however, quite important, with the highest notes appearing in the refrain.
But “Bridge Over Troubled Water” aside, repetition is one of the most important melodic features that songwriters should be thinking of when creating a new melody. Why? Repeating musical ideas make songs easier to remember. Without repetition, song melodies risk becoming long, aimless wanderings.
Repetition is just one aspect of a great song melody. Here are 10 ideas you might want to consider when writing song melodies:
- Make Melodies Mainly Stepwise. Melodies that feature an abundance of leaps (i.e., jumping up or down by large intervals) are hard to sing, and possibly hard for listeners to remember.
- Use Melodic Leaps to Inject Energy. While Tip #1 above cautions against using too many leaps, occasional melodic leaps can be distinctive and exciting. Many songs could be mentioned, like “You Make Me Feel Brand New“, by the 70s group The Stylistics, as great examples, particularly the opening lines of the verse.
- Try Inverting Melodic Ideas. It’s a subtle technique, but taking a melodic idea from one part of a song, and flipping it over so that its shape is, essentially, upside down, is a really interesting way to make a connection from one section to another. Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” takes an original opening verse idea (“You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset…”), and flips it over for the pre-chorus (“But she wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts…”)
- Explore Your Extreme Upper/Lower Vocal Range. It’s tempting (and quite logical) to always place songs in your vocal midrange, but placing songs right at the top of your range, even if those high notes sound a bit strained, can give your song a really nice edge.
- Rhythm Is Usually Busier in Verse Melodies Than Choruses. Though it’s not that hard to find songs where choruses are a bit more rhythmically active than verses (The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy“, for example), you’ll find that rhythmic activity tends to be more in verses. It complements the stronger chord progressions and lyrics that choruses usually feature.
- Use the Tonic Note and Chord More in Chorus Melodies than Verse Melodies. The tonic note is strong, and has a “final” quality that works well in the chorus.
- Keep Chorus Melodies Pitched Generally Higher than Verse Melodies. Because there needs to be a fairly noticeable build in energy as a song proceeds from verse to chorus, the logical choice should be to move your melody generally higher as it moves forward.
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