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Ever have a great idea for a song that just hits you out of the blue? It could be while walking down the street, could be in the middle of the night, or any time at all. And how many times has that happened, and you’ve thought, “I’ll remember that…”?
But somewhere between dreaming up the idea and your next songwriting session, you forget. Try as you might, you can’t bring that bit of melody back. It’s frustrating.
That seems to happen most with melodies. Why is that? It’s because if you’ve thought up a great bit of lyric, it takes 10 seconds to write it down. And it’s the same with a catchy bit of chord progression. Just grab your pencil and get it on paper, and you’re good to go.
But what do you do about melodies if you don’t read music? I strongly advocate for learning some basic music theory skills, and you should consider that a longterm goal. But for now, if you don’t have the ability to write down in music notation what you’re imagining in your mind, how do you make sure that you don’t forget what you’ve conjured up?
Here are some ways to make sure that you don’t forget that great melodic idea that comes to you in the middle of the night:
- Let’s start with the obvious: sing it into a digital recorder or your smartphone. Keep it by your bedside. If you share that bed with anyone, they’ll get used to your occasional middle-of-the-night hummings.
- Play it on an instrument. By doing this, you now have your brain working on the problem from two different angles: as a simple memory task, but also from a performer’s point of view.
- Make a quick line drawing. Though you may not have the ability to write music down on paper, you do likely know when a melody is moving up and when it’s moving down. You might be surprised to find that a line drawing that traces the shape of the melody is all that’s necessary to remember it. It’s simple: make a dot on the page to represent the start of the melody. As you hum, make a line that moves upward if the melody moves up, and downward if the melody moves down. If chords or lyrics are occurring to you as well, sketch those in too. Anything you can write quickly will help.
- Give your melody a temporary lyric. The more there is to remember about a melody, the more you’re likely to remember. If you’re simply trying to remember notes, those will likely fade quickly. But if you can give those notes a temporary lyric – especially something notably silly – you’re more likely to remember the melody. (Paul McCartney, when he imagined the melody to “Yesterday” in a dream, originally called it “Scrambled Eggs”, and that likely went a long way to ensuring that the melody would be remembered.)
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. The more you sing your musical idea to yourself, the more likely it is that you’ll remember it. As you sing, move your hand up and down, tracing the general direction of the melody.
These days, with smartphones being no more than a few feet from us at any time, it’s becoming easier and easier to solve the problem of remembering spontaneous melodies. So the phone can be a songwriter’s best friend. You should consider it to be as vital a tool as your guitar, especially when it comes to solving the problem of middle-of-the-night melodies that go missing.
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