5 Ways You Know a Melody is Working Well

If your song is failing, check to see if you notice these five crucial characteristics.

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Coldplay - Viva La VidaThe best way to know that a melody is working well (even though it sounds sarcastic to say so) is that it sounds like a good melody. The sarcasm is not intended; the best judge of whether something in the world of songwriting is good or not is your own spontaneous opinion: it sounds good, or it doesn’t.

But sometimes though you’ve got the makings of a good melody,  you can just tell that there’s something amiss. There are parts that sound catchy and/or inspiring, but other bits… it’s just hard to tell what the problem is.

No matter what genre you call your favourite, there are certain characteristics that you should see in melodies that make them good ones. Here’s a list of what could be arguably the five most important qualities:

  1. You notice a definite contour. Good melodies give a sense of direction and purpose. There’s a shape, and it’s usually one you can hear. If you were to create a line drawing that moved the way your melody moves, you’d notice that it’s not just random up-and-down motion. Once it starts moving in a certain direction, it tends to keep generally moving in that direction, eventually changing and moving mainly in the other direction. “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney, is a perfect example. Other songs that show this characteristic to a certain degree are “Tonight’s the Night” (Rod Stewart), “I Want To Know What Love Is” (Foreigner), “Be With You” (Enrique Iglesias), and the chorus of “Viva La Vida” (Coldplay).
  2. You see that repetition of short melodic ideas plays a vital role in putting an entire melody together. A good example of this is Creed’s 2000 hit “With Arms Wide Open.” Without repetition, melodies are very difficult for an audience to remember. Repetition of melodic fragments over a changing chord progression is a hallmark of good chorus construction.
  3. You can often point to a climactic moment in a good melody. Not all melodies rise to a climactic moment, but you’d be surprised how many do. And even if the melody doesn’t highlight that one spot that’s the pinnacle, you can still identify a moment when a melody, partnered with the chords and lyrics, that seems to be the point of the whole song. Which leads to…
  4. You notice a strong relationship between chords, melody and lyrics. Nothing happens in a vacuum in the world of songwriting. For a melody to be good, it needs to sound like the proper vehicle for the lyric, all supported by good chord choice. If you want to know how melodies can strengthen the meaning of your lyrics, read this.
  5. You notice a mainly stepwise construction. Good melodies will usually move to the note that’s on either side of it, with occasional leaping. Stepwise motion makes a melody easy to sing, and leaps add a bit of an emotional shot.

These five guidelines are certainly not to say that as long as you follow them, you’ve got a great melody. There’s another quality of “it just sounds good” that’s impossible to define because it’s what makes a song the unique piece of art that it is. Sometimes it’s a hit, and sometimes… it’s time to move on to the next song.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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