The Seemingly Eternal Characteristics of Good Song Melodies

If you were to ask me to describe what makes a good song melody, I’d probably tell you this: On the whole, when you look at songs that have made their mark and have been held up as iconic representations of their genre, the following is usually true:

  1. They move in a mainly stepwise way. (i.e., once the singer has sung the first note, the next one is a bit more likely to be the adjacent letter name above or below it.)
  2. They use melodic leaps occasionally. (i.e., to a slightly lesser degree, you’ll find small leaps of a 3rd or 4th mixed in throughout the melody.)
  3. The natural pulse and rhythm of the words when you read them will be similar to the way that rhythm is applied in the melody. (i.e., the rhythm of a melody fits the rhythms of the words in a natural way.)
  4. The arrangement of their notes make a key or mode obvious. (i.e., the choice of notes and the way they move makes the key of the song obvious; if you heard Paul McCartney sing “Yesterday” completely unaccompanied, you’d still hear the key of F major coming through clearly.

The truth is, those four characteristics apply to pop song melodies, but they are ones I paraphrased from a website called “Schola Cantorum Bogotensis: Characteristics of Gregorian Chant.” Stunning that many centuries after the age of Gregorian Chant (it was first notated in the 6th century A.D.), these same melodic characteristics are true of music in any of the pop genres.

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Not familiar with Gregorian Chant? Here’s a typical example, something that would have been sung in a Catholic church, convent or monastery in the 6th century:

Why are those four characteristics — stepwise motion, occasional leaps, natural pulse and obvious key — so ubiquitous? You’d never confuse a chant melody with a pop song, and that’s mainly because pop music takes those four characteristics and adds to them:

  1. Time Signature. The rhythms of pop music are constructed to make a time signature obvious. (Gregorian chant did not make time signatures obvious because the notion of strong beat/weak beat patterns did not exist in music yet.)
  2. Instrumentation. Instruments in pop music support the performance of the melody. (Gregorian chant was unaccompanied music.)
  3. Lyrical Imagery. Pop music uses the lyrics to generate images in the listener’s mind. (Gregorian chant was in Latin, usually scripture-based, and imagery, at least in the modern sense of that term, wasn’t really possible.)
  4. Musical Energy. A song generally builds musical energy as it moves from start to finish. (Gregorian chant was constructed and performed to avoid any obvious up-and-down of musical power or energy.)

Still, the basic characteristics that are in common between chant and pop (stepwise motion, occasional leaps, natural pulse and obvious key) make it relatively easy to take a pop song and make it sound like a chant melody, as is the interesting (almost amusing) objective of the German group Gregorian:

It might be an interesting and fun exercise to take a song melody that you’ve written, and then sing it the way a chant melody might have been performed back in the Medieval era. It can be very revealing. If you do that, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does my melody move in a mainly stepwise way? (This makes a melody easier to sing.)
  2. Are there occasional leaps? (This adds melodic interest.)
  3. Do the rhythms of my words resemble at least slightly the rhythm I’ve used in my melody? (This makes a lyric sound natural, and ultimately easier to remember.)
  4. Does my song work well with no instruments accompanying it? (You should get a strong sense of key.)

Performing your song as if it were a chant melody means that you are stripping away most of the pop influences, and experiencing your melody in its bare-bones rendition. It helps you to see and understand it from a more purely structural point of view, and it can be extremely instructional.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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