Complexity is fine, but not if it makes your melody hard to sing.
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Many songwriters have an instinct to lean towards complexity when creating music. That instinct has its roots in the desire to break away from the norm and do something innovative. But while complexity in the designing of a song may give your audiences something unique to listen to (often a good thing), it can also scare listeners away. So getting the balance right is important, as I mentioned in a recent post.
With song melodies, creating something singable is far more important than creating something complex. In a Billboard article from December 16, “Gimme Five: AJR Lists Their Favorite Songwriting Artists“, AJR member Ryan said, “If you listen to an album like ‘Pet Sounds,’ it’s really sophisticated and complex musically. Some of the chords are crazy! And yet, it’s all very hummable and accessible and timeless.”
With “Pet Sounds,” The Beach Boys got the balance between sophistication and accessibility just right. Because when all is said and done, if the audience can’t sing or remember your melodies with ease, you’ve lost that one main way you have of keeping a song locked in their musical minds.
Here are 5 tips for making sure that your song melodies make a strong impression with your listeners, and ensure that they can keep humming them all day long:
- Keep most of the melody in a range of less than an octave. There are some notable melodies that do have large ranges, such as Katy Perry’s “Firework”. But most songs do nicely with something less ambitious with regard to range. While it’s not that uncommon to see melodies that extend to an octave or so, aim to keep most of your verse and chorus melodies within a 5th or 6th, with only occasional notes that stray beyond.
- Let repetition play an important role. In music, when something repeats, it becomes instantly more easily remembered. This is especially important with chorus melodies. So use both literal and approximate repeating (notes and rhythms) as an important aspect of your melody writing.
- Melodic shape is an important characteristic. By shape, we mean a sense of overall direction to your melody. If you find that your melodies move randomly up and down with no real sense of overall direction, the melody becomes very difficult to remember.
- Allow melodies to accentuate the key of your song. When we think of key, we automatically think of chords. But melodies also need to sit in a key. So just as chord progressions need to move away from and toward the tonic chord, think of a melody as a journey that moves away from and toward the tonic note. (In that AJR interview, they mentioned “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as an example of a great song, which it certainly is. And that song is a great demonstrator of a melody that keeps the tonic chord firmly in its sights.)
- Don’t over-do rhythmic complexity in a melody. The rhythm of your melody should make the words feel natural and effortless when they’re sung. You’ll notice that emotional words work best when they are held longer, so don’t be surprised to see that your chorus melodic rhythms are longer than your verse ones.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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