Getting the Most Out of a 2- or 3-Note Melody

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It can be easily argued that when it comes to melodies, audiences don’t remember notes – they remember patterns. That notion extends beyond notes, by the way. They remember patterns of notes which get placed over patterns of chord progressions, and delivered to the listener attached to a pattern of rhythms. In other words, good music is a series of interrelated patterns.

All that is because humans rely on pattern recognition to make sense of the world around them. We take comfort, whether we’re talking about music or our daily schedules, in recognizing patterns.

It makes you wonder why melodies that are comprised of only 2 or 3 notes ever make a positive impact on us. Tom Petty’s song “Free Fallin'” uses 3 pitches, but it’s a powerful song. Why does that melody resonate so successfully? It’s the melody of “Free Fallin'” that is most easily recognized, but in fact it’s the pattern-upon-pattern delivery of that melody: the backing rhythms with their contrasting on-the-beat/off-the-beat syncopations; the tonally strong, repetitious chord progression, and the ever-present backing vocals. Then you take the attractively raw instrumentation, and you’ve built the perfect vehicle for that melody. That song had to win.

A song melody that use very few notes has something going for it: it invites all the other elements of the song to step forward and grab some attention. In addition, melodies that hover around a limited number of notes, with few upward and downward leaps, have the advantage of being easy to sing.

Melodies that get remembered for beauty and design are usually the ones that use more notes, with a noticeable contour — something like “Let It Be”, perhaps, or “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

But if you want to make the most of a melody that hovers around 2 or 3 notes, remember the following 5 tips:

  1. Deliver that melody with an enticing rhythmic background. The interesting rhythms can be in the melody itself, but it’s actually structurally better to create an instrumental backing that makes good use of rhythm, syncopation, and other rhythmic devices.
  2. Keep your chords simple. (C  F  C  G, for example.) Make sure your progressions strongly point to one chord as being the tonic (key) focus.
  3. Create lyrics with an emotional punch. Simplicity in chords and melody means that emotional lyrics will make a stronger impact.
  4. Make the melody easy to sing. Three notes can be simple, but not if those three notes involve large melodic leaps that require the singer to engage in vocal gymnastics. So try a scale-wise pattern (C D E or E D C), or something else where melodic leaps are kept to a minimum: C D F or C E F, for example.
  5. Make repetition clever. Repeating that melody over the same chords with the same lyric, rhythm, etc., and you’ve got a recipe for boredom. So be smart about how you repeat things. If your 3-note melody features a constantly repeating pattern, change up the chords a bit by using chord substitutions, and/or change the lyric, and/or insert surprising rhythmic syncopations. Repetition is always good in music, but excessive repetition may turn a listener off.


Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.

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