Simplifying the Melody-Writing Process

Repetition and focus around a specific pitch can help simplify the writing of song melodies.

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Mother Mother - Bit By BitIf you ask songwriters to identify the most important quality in good song melodies, you’ll probably hear words like “contour”, “singability”, “emotion”, “memorability”, “simplicity”, and so on. All of those words are important, of course, and depending on the song, any one of those qualities will rate higher than the others.

It could be said that the most important quality of any song melody is its ability to be easily remembered. If you aren’t remembering it after you hear it, it becomes obscure and irrelevant.

When it comes to melody, you could argue that the simpler a melody is — without overly compromising on the other qualities — the more effective it is. While we usually hear song melodies as being a collection of notes that move around as dictated by the key, good melodies are often simpler than that, especially in the pop music world.

We already know, from the success of songs like “Blurred Lines,” that repeating melodic shapes works. But the melody-writing process can be simplified even more than that.

Canadian indie band Mother Mother‘s song “Bit By Bit” (iTunes) demonstrates an easy way to put a melody together, by establishing focus notes for each section of the song. In so doing, the writers created a melody that is easy to remember, captivating and creative, with great sense of contour and design.

Establishing focus notes simply means considering one (and sometimes two) note(s) from a given key to be the note away from which (and toward which) the melody moves, and changing that focus for each section. So when you listen to “Bit By Bit”, you hear the following focus pitches:

  • Verse: D
  • Chorus: C-Bb
  • Bridge: ??

As you can hear, a focus note does not limit your melodic design. It is simply a note that acts like a musical magnet, constantly pulling the melody back. In “Bit By Bit”, the bridge is the part of the song that shows the greatest amount of contour, where tonal focus is less relevant. But that provides a nice sense of contrast from the rest of the song, and bridges should do anyway.

In most songs, the focus note for the chorus will naturally want to be higher than the one for the verse. In some songs the bridge focus note is even higher. In “Bit By Bit”, with the chorus exhibiting a much higher energy level, pulling the focus pitch down for the bridge allows for a nice contrast.

Many songwriters do this sort of thing instinctively, but if you’re looking for a simplified melody-writing process, try the following:

  1. Create chord progressions for the verse and chorus (and bridge if necessary).
  2. Choose a focus pitch for the verse. It’s normal for the focus pitch to exist in the first chord of your progression.
  3. Choose a focus pitch for the chorus. This is usually higher than the verse pitch.
  4. Create a verse melody that moves away from and back to your focus pitch. Don’t feel restricted by this pitch. You may find that the longer your verse melody is, the more it will want to wander from the pitch.
  5. Create a chorus melody in a similar fashion.
  6. For any other section of your song, establish a focus note that considers the song energy of the moment. A pre-chorus focus usually works when it’s higher than the verse, but lower than the chorus.

This way of creating melodies by thinking of them as a line that moves away from and back to a single pitch has a way of strengthening the melody’s structure. As I mentioned, focus notes can sometimes work in pairs, such as in the verse of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” (G-C).


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Thank you! I’ve been writing music for about 18 years now, and for some reason I find myself fighting for simplicity where it used to come so natural to me because I wasn’t quite as talented on the guitar as might be now, the worst thing a musician can do is become a musician. This is a nice guideline, I’m always searching for the constants in successful music.

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