8 Questions and Answers on Writing Song Melodies

8 questions about writing song melodies that might help you with your next one.

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My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up) Fall Out BoyYou can argue that a song melody is the most important part of what you do as a songwriter if you look at it this way: no one hums chord progressions, and you’ll rarely recite song lyrics to yourself without the melody attached. You might scat-sing a rhythmic groove, but the melody you write and sing is going to be far and away the most likely bit that sticks in a listener’s mind.

Over the past while I’ve answered several questions, mainly by email, from readers of my blog who have asked specifically about melodies that they’re writing. Here’s a list of eight, the answers for which you might find useful as you work on your own song melodies.

  1. What is a climactic moment? A melody’s climactic moment is often the highest note of a song section. Songs can have several climactic moments, with the one that happens in the chorus often being the most important and memorable one. Melodic climaxes have been an important part of music for centuries. In classical music, a climactic moment usually happens in the second half of a melody, close to the end. The same is true for pop music, but you also can find climactic moments near the beginning of a section, such as is demonstrated in the chorus of Katy Perry’s “Firework.”
  2. My melody doesn’t seem to have a climactic moment. Is that wrong? Not necessarily, since the climactic moment in a song can come from a different song element, or a combination of several. You’ll know that your melody needs something climactic if it sounds boring to you. Don’t fix a song that works already!
  3. My melody only uses three notes. Is that a problem? No, good melodies are the result of good structure, not number of notes. There are times when a melody can sound restricted and boring, but that has more to do with how you’ve structured the melody, not necessarily with how many notes you’ve used.
  4. Some of the notes in my melody don’t fit the chords that are accompanying them. Is that a problem? It depends. Most of the time, music is structured to be delivered in an alternation of strong beats and weak beats. Melody notes that happen on a strong beat should usually be members of the chord underneath. Notes between strong beats can be passing tones, which may or may not be in the chord. Listen to the verse of “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up)”  by Fall Out Boy to hear how most of the notes fit the Dm chord, but the ones “in between” the strong beats don’t.
  5. You talk a lot about song contour, but my melodies don’t have a lot of shape. Is there anything I can or should do about that? Memorable melodies often have a distinctive shape, but the truth is that your song’s success may be due to a combination of factors, with melody not playing the most important role in that. It’s time to fix your melody if you find yourself fixated on its boring shape.
  6. What can I do to make my melodies connect to an audience more? Shape your melody so that key words with strong emotional content are placed higher. You don’t need to do this all the time, but usually you should see a close partnership between the shape of your melody and lyrical choices.
  7. I feel like I have a good melody, but it seems to just get lost in the mix. What’s causing that? Often a good melody can be upstaged by a band that is playing too busily or too loudly. Listen to your instruments, and tone it down by simplifying backing rhythms and reducing instrumentation especially in the verse. Build things up for the chorus.
  8. Besides a chorus being pitched higher than a verse, what other differences are there? The most noticeable one is that chorus melodic rhythms usually become less complicated than verse ones. You’ll see that verse melodies tend to make greater use of syncopation and other rhythmic devices. But once a melody reaches the chorus, the melody rhythms become simpler and often make greater use of longer notes, even while backing instruments do the reverse. Listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for a simple demonstration of this.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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