If you can tell your melody isn’t working, but you don’t know why, this list will help.
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It’s often the case that the best time to analyze your music is when it’s not working. That’s because even though we know there are certain qualities that all good songs display, there are songs that just seem to violate most of the principles of good songwriting, but they still work really well. And when something is working, it would be silly to change it just because you think you’ve gone against a songwriting principle.
This is particularly true of song melodies. We know, for example, that a good melody should consist of mainly stepwise motion (i.e., one note moving to the next note in the scale), with occasional melodic leaps for interest’s sake. The melody for “Payphone” by Maroon 5 is a textbook case of a great melody in that regard. Lots of stepwise motion, with a leap here and there.
But sometimes you’ll write a melody that just seems to be lacking something, and it may be hard to put your finger on exactly what’s not working. If you’ve been working on a song where that’s the case, run it past this checklist. It may illuminate the problem.
One important thing to remember before you check this list: not every good melody will exhibit every quality listed below. So just because your song doesn’t follow one of the guidelines, don’t assume there’s something wrong. So use the list as a starting point to solving problems, but don’t take it as a list of rules. Music just doesn’t work that way.
But in general, your melody should show most of the following qualities:
The shape of the melody generally matches the shape of the energy map for the song (i.e., the higher the energy of the song, the higher the vocal line should be).
The chorus uses the tonic (key) note more so than the verse. Melody lines in the chorus move toward the tonic note at the end.
There is a climactic moment in the verse and chorus melody, with the chorus’s climactic point being more important than that of the verse.
The bridge melody is different from the verse and chorus, and often has a more “wandering” quality.
There is a seamless connection between the verse melody and the chorus melody; (i.e., the chorus continues logically and intuitively from the verse.)
All the various melodies partner well with the lyrics associated with them. (See this article for more advice on this).
If you notice that your song’s melody seems to blatantly violate one of the qualities listed above, don’t assume that you’ve got problems. At that point, you really need to ask yourself if that “violation” really is a problem. For each of the qualities that usually go hand-in-hand with good melodies, there are songs that simply don’t follow the advice.
In the songs that students of songwriting send to me for analysis, the biggest problem I encounter are verse and chorus melodies that don’t really seem to have a unique shape, or are missing a climactic point.
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