There are several important characteristics of good song melodies, even if those characteristics don’t all show up in the same melody. Here’s a few you’ll see in most songs that make it to the top of the charts:
- Lots of repetition, either exact or approximate.
- A nice shape that can be drawn as a line.
- A climactic moment that usually coincides with the highest notes.
- A great partnership with a chord progression.
- A great partnership with a lyric.
There are more, but I wanted to concentrate on the second point in this blog post. It’s possible to draw a line that represents the direction and basic shape of your song melody. Here’s the melody of the first phrase in Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, represented by an orange line:
Dylan’s melodic idea has two things going for it:
- A memorable contour.
So let’s take that ability we have to create simple line drawings that represent melodies, and use it to help us create a full verse melody. What follows is a step-by-step that can allow you to do just that.
Mind that it’s not the only way to write a melody, of course, but should serve as a great exercise to experiment with. It’s best to start with a 2-, 3- or 4-chord progression above which you’ll create this melody. If you can’t think of one, try this:
Cm Ab Bb Eb [LISTEN – Opens in a new tab or window]
1. Make a simple line drawing.
Remember that melodies are memorable if they have a simple, distinctive shape. How about this one:
2. Create a Melody That Follows That Shape.
The melody needs to fit the chord progression you’re working with. Here’s what I came up with: [LISTEN] I chose to start on an Eb note, as it fits nicely with the Cm chord that my progression begins with. You can hear that my melodic fragment starts relatively low, then makes that leap upward, comes back down, and then ends on a slight upturn. It’s short, catchy, and memorable. I’ve now got the first phrase of my verse melody.
3. Move the Melody Higher.
For the second phrase, I choose a higher chord tone to start on as I play that first Cm chord. I’m starting on a G note, and then finding a way to still follow that basic line drawing. Here’s what I wrote: [LISTEN]
4. Create Contrast For the Third Phrase.
Now create some contrast by doing something different for the third phrase. I’ve decided that I want to take the shape I’ve been using (start low, move up, then move down again), and invert it so that I start high, move low, then move high again). What that does is it helps to create a little climactic moment in my melody just where I’d probably want one: in the second half of my melody. So here’s what I came up with: [LISTEN]
5. Repeat the First Phrase.
Repeating the first phrase works well because it brings everything back down again after that climactic moment.
Here’s what all four phrases sound like when attached to be a complete melody:
This is certainly not the only way to write a good melody. But it has several things going for it:
- The basic shape of the melodic fragment is simple and easy to hear.
- That basic shape gets replicated as a larger plan for all four phrases. In other words, the initial fragment is low-high-low, and the entire 4-phrase melody is low-high-low.
- It uses repetition in a very interesting way: each phrase of the melody moves higher, following the same line drawing as a plan, but not using the exact same notes.
- The melody is memorable because of this use of repetition.
- It works for creating verse melodies, but can also work for choruses.
If you use this kind of idea for a verse melody, you might want to construct your chorus melody a bit differently. For example, it might partner well to have a chorus melody that repeats the first phrase a couple of times, before ending with something completely different, as you hear in Coldplay’s “Paradise.”
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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