It takes more than a beautiful singer to make melodies beautiful. It’s all in how they’re constructed, and it’s not accidental.
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There are some melodies that go beyond merely being “good tunes”, where public consensus rates them as “the most beautiful melodies ever written.” When people talk about a melody being beautiful, they are usually talking about:
- melodies that tend to be slow or moderately slow, and
- melodies that partner well with a beautiful chord progression, and
- melodies that use a prominent melodic cell or motif that gets constantly repeated, and
- melodies that often feature a melodic leap or a series of leaps.
Let’s look at an example or two of song melodies that are generally thought of as being beautiful, and then how these four qualities apply.
First, a couple of gorgeous tunes from pre-rock & roll days: “Beyond the Sea”, by Charles Trenet under the title “La Mer” (1946), and “Body and Soul,” written by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, Frank Eyton and Johnny Green in 1939.
“Beyond the Sea” is known best in this version by Bobby Darrin. It’s become a jazz standard, and has been recorded often in many different genres. “Body and Soul” was first made famous by saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and most recently recorded by Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse (her last recording session before her death in 2011.)
Give both songs a couple of listens. “Beyond the Sea” is usually done at the moderate tempo you hear in the Darrin recording. The tempo of “Body and Soul” is more typical of songs we associate with beauty. Slow tempos allow notes to linger longer, where we get to experience the full effects of melodic dissonances and interplay with the supporting chords.
Pop songwriters typically choose more elaborate chords when the tempos are slower, and that’s something that’s been a norm in music composition for literally centuries. The faster the tempo, the more basic the chords should be. Slower tempos that we typically use for ballads allow the writer to insert more interesting passing chords and altered chords, as well as chords full of non-chord tones.
In both of the song examples, the chords allow for beautifully-structured melodies. While many songs will use a rather small set of chords, songs that feature gorgeous melodies tend to use chords that go beyond simple I-IV-V progressions, while remaining focused on the tonic chord. Therefore, you’ll get great use out of progressions that allow for a rising or falling bass line, as well as circle-of-fifths.
Repeating Melodic Cells
A melodic cell is simply a short sequence of notes that pulls the listener into the song as it gets repeated. In “Beyond the Sea”, we get an initial rising-note idea that keeps modifying itself enticingly, the end-note of each cell moving higher and higher as it goes:
You’ll notice this same ever-climbing-higher characteristic in “Body and Soul” as we hear that initial idea “My heart is sad and lonely” get repeated upward.
A melodic leap is simply a situation where a melody leaps upward or downward usually by an interval larger than a 3rd. This is an easily-noticed feature of both these songs, and you’ll notice it in practically every melody that a particular musical culture considers to be beautiful.
If you love listening to “O Holy Night” at Christmas, you’ll notice that “the big leap” at the end gets more attention in that song than almost any other part of the tune.
In more modern times, the four characteristics listed above still apply. Here’s a short list of songs from the recent past that use melodies that have been beautifully constructed and shaped:
- “Man in the Mirror” (Siedah Garrett, Glen Ballard), recorded by Michael Jackson. Features a prominent downward leap in the chorus. Downward leaps are not as common as upward-moving ones.
- “A Thousand years” (Christina Perri, David Hodges).
- “Like a Star” (Corinne Bailey Rae). You’ll be amazed how many times you can repeat a single musical idea, and string it together to produce something beautiful.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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