Leonard Bernstein's Ideas on Song Melodies

There are many different kinds of melodies, with the tune being the one most songwriters deal with.

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Leonard BernsteinFor many songwriters, music is all about the melody; once you’ve got an engaging melody, you’ve got something that acts as an important vehicle for lyrics. That melody, to be ultimately powerful, needs chords to support it — chords that make the musical journey sound complete.

I’m fond of pointing out the similarities between classical and pop music structures. Even though the performance style of classical music is radically different from pop, the basic structural characteristics are similar:

  1. In both classical and pop music, melodies tend to move upward to a climactic high point, and then move downward again before ending. Examples: CLASSICAL: The “Going Home” theme from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” POP: “Lay Lady Lay” (Bob Dylan).
  2. In both classical and pop music, chords move around in such a way as to make one chord stand out as the tonic.
  3. In both classical and pop music, musical energy and momentum grows as the music progresses. Ends of songs tend to be, on average, more energetic than the beginnings.

Thinking about melody for the moment, you only have to listen to a few songs to realize that there are big differences between the kind of melody that you find in various songs. For example, if you listen to The Knack’s “My Sharona“, you hear a melody with a lot of repeated notes, and very little of what you might call “shape” or “contour.”

But now compare that melody to the one we hear in “Love of My Life” (Freddie Mercury/Queen). The melody is beautifully shaped, with a mixture of stepwise motion and melodic leaps.

The American composer Leonard Bernstein has given us a brilliant description of the different kinds of melody we encounter in music. In his book, “Young People’s Concerts”, he says the following about a kind of melody that you, as a songwriter, are most familiar with: the tune:

[W]hy do so many people complain about music that has no melody? […] What do you suppose they mean when they say it’s not melodic? What are they talking about? Isn’t any string of notes a melody?

Well, I think the answer is in the fact that melody can be a lot of different things: it can be a tune, or a theme, or a motive, or a long melodic line, or a bass line, or an inner voice — all those things: and the minute we understand the difference among all those kinds of melody, then I think we’ll be able to understand the whole problem. You see, people usually think of a melody as a tune, something you go out whistling, that’s easy to remember, that “sticks in your mind.” What’s more, a tune almost never goes out of the range of the normal human singing voice – that is, too high or too low. Nor should a tune have phrases that last longer than a single normal breath in singing it. After all, melody is the singing side of music, just as rhythm is the dancing side. But the most important thing about a tune is that usually it is complete in itself — that is, it seems to have a beginning, middle and end, and leaves you feeling satisfied…

As a songwriter, you’re most concerned about the tune: the kind of melody that, as Bernstein says, has the following characteristics:

  1. It can be easily sung.
  2. It’s easily remembered.
  3. It stays in the range of a normal human singing voice.
  4. Its phrases are short enough that each one can be sung in one breath.
  5. It sounds complete, having a start, a middle, and an end.

That’s why the melodies for both “My Sharona” and “Love of My Life” were so successful commercially, even though they are structured in completely different ways. Bernstein goes on to talk about other kinds of melodies, the kind that many classical composers were fond of: themes, for example. In a theme, you hear potential for other melodic ideas to develop, and that’s what you get over the course of a longer symphony.

In your own songwriting, you’re usually going to restrict your melody writing to the composing of a tune. How you know you’ve nailed it is if it can be described using Bernstein’s five observations listed above.

That’s certainly not to say that every melody will achieve those characteristics in the same way, as “My Sharona” and “Love of My Life” demonstrate. But wouldn’t music be a boring activity if that were the case?

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Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-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.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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3 Comments

  1. With respect to Mathew above Professional critiques are a great idea,
    however we have to learn to critique our own work, and that takes time
    most aspiring writers believe it’s all about sudden inspiration, but in
    truth inspiration counts for about 10 % the other 90 % IS RE WRITING

    Just because we may be competent musician; does not mean we can
    write commercial Pop Songs, but being a competent musician can
    certainly help. collaborating can be a very hard process for many
    writers and the likely hood of finding the perfect writing partner is as
    hard as it is finding a partner of the opposite sex.

    TAXI have a check list that can be downloaded free , where as most
    Song Writer Web Forums are filled with people who do lots of back
    slapping, based on their lack of real knowledge , about the true art
    of successful song writing

  2. Dear Gary,

    I am an aspiring pop songwriter with a pretty decent voice and some promising songs in progress. I am exploring collaborations with other writers to compliment my talents and vice versa. Therefore, I was wondering if you write and collaborate, or if you can provide professional critiques?

    Regards,

    Matthew

    • Hi Matthew:

      Most of the writing I’m doing at this point in my career is for vocal/choral ensembles, and I’m not currently exploring collaborations. I do offer to do quick critiques of songs, if I’m provided with a link to a sound file. If you’ve written something that you’d like for me to listen to, you could write me at: songs [at] secretsofsongwriting [dot] com. All I ask is that you have specific questions/problems you want me to focus on — not just “what do you think of my song” – and I’d be happy to give you my thoughts. For one song, that’s something I’m very willing to do for free. If you’d like a more comprehensive and longer-term feedback, that’s something we could discuss.

      Cheers!
      -Gary

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