Song melodies need to have a direction, a goal. Otherwise they’re just aimless wanderings that bore listeners.
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Recently I wrote about one of the most common problems I saw in young songwriters, which was a serious flaw in the sense of structure and form of their music. I mentioned that the main symptom of bad structure is a song that seems to have no climactic moment; no obvious point to where the song energy is building. A badly-written melody can be both a cause and a symptom of bad song structure. Just as song energy needs to feel that it’s got a purpose and a direction, good melodies need to have a goal.
But with melodies, there’s more at stake than simply giving it a high point. Melodies almost always need a crucial ingredient to keep them from sounding like they’re wandering aimlessly: they need repetition.
Most listeners are not aware that many of the world’s best melodies are made up of small repeating cells, or motifs, that get strung together to form a longer melody. A brilliant current example is Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.” The verse melody is 16 bars long, but in fact it’s merely a 4-bar melody that gets played 4 times, each repetition an almost-exact replica of that original 4-bar fragment.
The climactic moment occurs at the beginning of the chorus, where the high point of the melody occurs. There’s a 2-bar melodic cell that then moves downward twice. These are not literal repetitions: each time the melody moves down it gets modified, but we hear a strong similarity between each iteration of the fragment.
With very little new material, she’s able to create an entire verse and chorus melody.
Repetition has been a key ingredient for many great melodies in pop history. Here’s a short list of songs to check out that have long melodies that feature short melodic fragments that get repeated many times. Each song uses repetition in a different way – sometimes using literal repeats, sometimes approximate repeats, sometimes repeating ideas but starting on a different note, and so on. But in each case longer melodies are created by stringing together shorter ones:
- Fire and Rain (James Taylor)
- Higher Ground (Stevie Wonder)
- Hotel California (The Eagles)
- What I Am (Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians)
- Walking on the Sun (Smash Mouth)
So what do we learn from this? The most important point is that repetition gives structure to an otherwise wandering melody. Repetition allows listeners to easily remember what they’ve heard. And in hit song writing, where the hook can be a crucial part of the appeal, repetition is vital.
As you begin work on your next melody, write a short 1- or 2-bar melody. Then see if you can string those fragments together into a longer melody. Sometimes it works to use the same chord progression as a harmonization for each repetition, as with “Set Fire to the Rain.” But sometimes you can repeat the fragment with different chords underneath, like “Higher Ground.”
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