Composing Song Melodies: Taking Advantage of Pattern Recognition

Humans innately recognize patterns, and are drawn to them. So why are you writing melodies without patterns?


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Imogen Heap - First Train HomeFor most animals, pattern recognition is a survival tool, an ability to make sense of the surrounding environment. But we humans have an ability that most other animals lack: the ability to recognize and make sense of sound patterns – musical patterns. In a very real sense, when we compose music we’re taking advantage of our audience’s desire to recognize, and be drawn to, musical patterns. As a songwriter, you want to be sure that you’re tapping into that innate part of the human psyche.

We quite instinctively use patterns in music, doing so almost without realizing it. For example, verse-chorus forms are designed to allow people to hear repeating melodies, lyrics and chord progressions. Even the fact that most songs establish and keep a beat is playing into people’s ability to recognize aural patterns.

Pattern aren’t just things we recognize. We’re attracted to them. We want to experience them. We like when we perceive a pattern because of the predictability they offer. Too much of a repeating pattern, with nothing new happening, can quickly become boring to human. We like patterns, but we also like to hear things change. So it’s a bit of a tight-rope act to get that balance right.

So when it comes to things like chord progressions, lyrics and rhythms, we understand the value and importance of patterns. But often, with regard to song melodies, we don’t use patterns enough.

If you find that your song melodies are missing the mark, the most likely culprit is a lack of motifs and patterns within the melodic structure. Like all aspects of music, good melodies make use of repeating motifs. That repetition, like any pattern, is attractive to listeners, and keeps them returning to experience it again.

There are 2 crucial ways that repetition makes song melodies attractive:

  1. Melodic hook. A melodic hook is a short, catchy melody that gets repeated over and over again, usually without change. Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is a great melodic hook. We like to hear it repeat, and that short melodic fragment would be far less effective if he only used it once.
  2. Melodic motif. A motif is a short (usually 2- to 6-note) melodic fragment that gets used and repeated as a song progresses. A motif differs from a hook in the way that it’s used. While a hook repeats without change to its basic form, a motif gets repeated in different ways, serving as a building block for other musical ideas. A famous example is the “da-da-da-DUM” motif from the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. That motif gets repeated starting on different pitches, and eventually using different rhythms. Hooks are unchanging entities; motifs are building-blocks. Hooks are immediately noticeable and upfront; motifs do their work in the background.

Whether we’re talking about a hook or a motif, it’s essential to remember that all melodies need something that repeats. Repeating patterns are immediately recognized by listeners, even if that recognition happens in the subconscious. Without patterns to recognize, listeners get bored.

If you find that your melodies just seem a bit random or forgettable, the reason is very likely related to a lack of patterns. Most good melodies (and especially chorus melodies) use a minimum of melodic ideas, and repeat them often, taking advantage of the basic human attraction to recognizable patterns.

As an example, check out Imogen Heap’s “First Train Home” from her excellent “Ellipse” album of 2009. As you listen, make note of how much direct repetition (i.e., exact repetition) you hear, and how much approximate repetition (i.e., motif) you hear. It’s part of what makes good melodies work so well.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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