Song melodies need to be memorable to be good. But how do you make sure that the tune you’re writing sticks?
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There’s nothing like succeeding in writing an “ear worm” – a melody that grabs hold of a listener and won’t let go. It’s very hard to define why some melodies do that to us, why some melodies just seem to go around and around in our brains. It can annoy us, but most of the time it’s because we thoroughly enjoy that melody on some level. Good song melodies don’t need to be ear worms, but they do need to be memorable.
So what makes a melody easy for the average listener to remember? There are several characteristics. Check out the following list and see if your melodies are making the grade.
- Good melodies usually have a shape that explores a low and high range. For sure, it’s possible to name great song melodies that dwell around two or three notes, but those are in the minority. Most song melodies, to be memorable, need a shape, something that distinguishes it easily from other songs. Think of the melody for “A Thousand Years“, by Christina Perri, the verse and chorus of which shows beautiful contour.
- Chorus melodies are usually written to be higher in pitch than verses. The reason for this is that song energy needs to increase as a song moves from the start of a verse to the end of a chorus. Melodic range is a strong generator of song energy/momentum.
- Memorable melodies consist mainly of stepwise motion, with only occasional leaps. When melodies move by step (i.e., from one letter name to an adjacent letter name), it’s easy for singers to learn and perform. Occasional leaps are great for injecting melodic interest. Again, “A Thousand Years” is a great example.
- Melodies that are too “leapy” can be hard to sing and hard to remember. Having said that, be sure not to always default to easy melodies. There are great melodies that are not necessarily easy to sing. And a recent example might be “Moves Like Jagger”, who’s principle hook (the whistle-like melody at the beginning) is quite difficult to perform accurately. But in most cases, you’ll want to avoid too many leaps.
- Good melodies will incorporate a motif. A motif is a short “idea”, a melodic shape that’s easy to sing, and can be added to itself to create a longer melody. A present-day example would be Bruno Mars’ “It Will Rain.” Most listeners won’t be consciously aware that the melody is comprised of an alternating up-and-down motif (“If you ever leave me, baby…”) That motif provides a kind of musical glue that helps the listener make sense of the melody, and keeps it from simply being a wandering of notes that move higher and lower indiscriminately.