Stepping and Leaping Through Song Melodies

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John Legend - All Of MeExcept for the times that you’re writing the same note over and over again, the song melodies you compose are going to be a mixture of stepwise motion (moving from one note to the next one up or down) and leaps (moving from one note to a different one that isn’t adjacent to it.)

Stepwise motion is what makes melodies more easily singable, while leaps often grab listener interest. You’ll notice that most melodies make use of both, though stepwise motion is more common.

The starting notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are all leaps, and accounts for the difficulties many singers have with it. Curiously, it seems to be common to use leaping intervals at the start of many national anthems (“O Canada”, “La Marseillaise” (France), etc.). It’s hard to know why, but the likely reason is that melodies that leap about on the tonic chord convey a sense of strength and power.

Melodies that are all stepwise, with few or no leaps, run the risk of being boring. Stepwise motion tends to be somewhat predictable, and can diminish musical excitement. So while they’re easier to sing, there is a negative side-effect of a stepwise melody having little to distinguish itself or help it stand out.

Mind you, not all songs feature melodies that need to be front and centre, where the tune is the most prominent feature. But if you’re looking to write song melodies that get attention, are hummable by average listeners, and are ultimately memorable, consider the following tips:

  1. While this isn’t a rule, most song melodies will feature more stepwise motion than leaps, by an order of at least 2 to 1, and probably more.
  2. Small leaps of a 3rd will blend seamlessly into most melodies, and are hardly perceived as a leap. For example, the opening John Legend’s “All of Me” features much stepwise motion with occasional leaps of a 3rd that barely register as leaps. Toward the end of the first phrase (at “no kidding“) you hear an upward leap of a 4th, and we hear the slight energy boost that comes from that medium-sized melodic leap.
  3. An upward leap of at least a 4th tends to increase the emotional value of the lyric at that moment.
  4. Upward leaps that occur in high register singing tend to be more significant than upward leaps in a lower vocal register. “All of Me” is, again, a good example of this. The verse features upward 4th leaps that move constantly higher, culminating in the “all of me” at the end of the chorus, which is higher in pitch than any previous occurrence of that leap.
  5. Downward leaps can also add considerable melodic interest to a musical line. The leap at the beginning of the chorus of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” (Ballard & Garrett) shows how appealing a downward leap can be.

Most of the time, songwriters who tend to write beautiful song melodies do so by instinct, and it’s not generally necessary to think too hard about this. However, if you find that your song melodies are boring, check that you’ve got a few good leaps of at least a 4th.

If you find that your song melodies are hard to sing, check that you’ve got a good balance of mostly stepwise motion with occasional leaps.

And if you find that audiences just don’t really remember your song melodies, be sure that you’ve incorporated a good amount of repetition of short melodic fragments. Repetition (without going overboard with it) makes musical ideas more easily remembered.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Pingback: Preparing For Single And Self Release – Lorena Torres

  2. Hi Gary:

    I’ve been improvising on the piano for quite sometime now, and there’s something I’m not understanding when it comes to shaping the melody.

    Does rhythm and/or phasing the notes play a huge part in melody-writing? For example I tend to only hum feature notes on the strong beats within the chords. So passing notes must be rhythmic? I apologize if my question sounds dull.

    • Rhythm is going to play a role in the sense that the rhythm of your melody will be whatever the rhythm of your lyric is. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do that. For example, verse rhythms (i.e., the way that verse words are set to music) tend to make more use of shorter, quicker notes, and syncopations. Chorus rhythms often feature longer note durations where syncopation is used less. You can read more about that here.

      Hope that helps,

  3. Melody + [Rhythm or Phrasing) is equal to Theme …… how do you develop phrasing; the spacing between notes….. i wonder whether you can elaborate…the riff and the groove??? what are these “objects”

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