It takes surprisingly few notes to create a good melody. But if your mind goes blank when it’s time to write a tune, here are some ideas.
Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, and get back to the basics of why hit songs sell.
There are melodies that are known for their wide vocal range and notable melodic leaps, but it might surprise you to know that many of today’s greatest songs have melodies constructed from a rather small tone set. Bruno Mars’ “It Will Rain” is mainly written using only 6 different pitches. Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” uses only 3 pitches for the verse, moving those same 3 notes up an octave to create the chorus. And while we like to see melodies with a good shape, the success of a melody is usually in how it partners with the backing chords and lyrics.
But sometimes the melodic ideas just don’t happen. When that kind of writer’s block hits, all it takes is to get a fragment of a melody happening. That usually will open the floodgates once again; if you can get one musical phrase to happen, the rest often follows.
Here are 5 songwriting ideas you can try to encourage melodies to happen.
- Melodies from a single note (or 2). There are melodies that seem to be constructed mainly around 1 or 2 pitches before moving on, which I call “plateau pitches.” Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is an example. Also, Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor”, which has a verse that dwells mainly on the E-G# interval before moving on to the B-C# motif of the chorus. So choose a key, write a simple chord progression, and starting humming on 1 or 2 notes. Once one note doesn’t seem to fit, switch to the other. You’re basically trying to create a melody that uses only 1 or 2 pitches. You’ll be surprised by the fact that you can create an entire verse or chorus this way.
- Melodies from parts of scales. Since most melodies are comprised of either repeated notes or notes that move by step, you’ll generate a lot of ideas by singing parts of scales. Just as in the first idea, create a simple chord progression. Then try this: Play the first chord, then sing the 5th note above the root. For example, if your chord progression starts with D, sing an A. Now sing a scale that moves down to D (i.e., sing the notes A-G-F#-E-D). Play the next chord and sing the same downward scale pattern. Sometimes the scale works, and sometimes you’ll have to modify something to make it work. Try it with an upward-moving scale as well.
- Melodies from patterns. Sing a 3-, 4- or 5-note pattern. For example, you might sing the notes F#-G-A-G-F# while playing that D chord. Now play through your chord progression, seeing if you can keep repeating that pattern. If the pattern doesn’t fit one of your chords, try moving the pattern up (G-A-B-A-B) or down (E-F#-G-F#-E). This helps create a motif that listeners will readily remember.
- Melodies from leaps. Try this: play this chord progression: D Dmaj7/C# Bm G A (play each chord for 4 beats, except for the final G and A for 2 beats). Now sing 2 A’s and leap down to 2 Ds for each chord. You’ll see that even for chords that don’t include both the A and D, the pattern will work. Now make up your own progression and try a different leap.
- Melodies from the chord progression. Create a simple chord progression. Now sing the root of the first chord. As you play through your progression, keep singing that first note until it doesn’t fit. Once the note doesn’t work, move downward. Each time you notice a dissonance between your sung note and the chord, choose a note that’s lower. You’ll notice the melody gradually moving downward. Now try the idea with notes moving upward.
Follow Gary on Twitter