Using Observation to Write Better Song Melodies

Melodies and lyrics are the two components of any song that must be unique. Song titles, chord progressions, rhythms… they can all have been heard before, and probably have. But melodies, if they share more than a few notes in a row with some other song, are said to have been plagiarized.

Because every melody needs to be completely different from every other melody, it’s difficult to come up with a process that says “Here’s how you write a good melody.” It’s possible to come up with a step-by-step process (I’ve done that), but when all is said and done, a process will only get you so far.

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As with lyrics, the best way to help a songwriter with melodies often boils down to looking at as many melodies as possible and finding commonalities. When you do that kind of study, you start to find aspects of melodies that seem to be in common, often regardless of the genre.

It’s actually not all that easy. For example, sometimes a verse melody can sound fine, but it fails when it gets placed beside a chorus melody that doesn’t partner well. So individually, those two melodies might be fine, but together they weaken each other.

So in lieu of coming up with a set of steps that will result in a usable melody, here is a short list of characteristics that seem to be part of the best examples of song melodies we have:

  1. A good melody is supported by a good chord progression. It’s possible for a bad progression — one that doesn’t properly complete its harmonic journey — to weaken a melody and render it ineffective. The completion of a chord progression offers an opportunity for a melody to find a similar moment of completion.
  2. A good melody uses repetition — both exact and approximate — as an important part of its structure. Take any hit song from the past 6 or 7 decades, and in fact any melody from any genre for the past 400 years, and listen for how many times you hear something repeat.
  3. A good melody partners with the lyric to help convey meaning. The more songs you study, the more you’ll notice that emotional words are often placed higher in the melody, that repeated notes convey a sense of determination, that lower notes allow melodies to sound introspective, and so much more.
  4. A good melody tends to combine stepwise motion with occasional leaps, and often uses the lyric and instrumentation to guide that process.
  5. A good melody usually stays within an octave-and-a-half, and often less. This makes melodies easier to sing and easier to remember.

There are many more characteristics of good song melodies, so here’s a good exercise: Make a list of your ten most favourite songs — the songs that have helped make you the kind of musician you are — and pay particular attention to their melodies.

As you study those melodies, you’ll become more and more aware of exactly what it is you like about them. Don’t be surprised if it takes a while. The best music out there has an effect on us that’s difficult to define in an exact way.

But the closer you come to understanding what it is about song melodies you like the closer you’ll be to writing the kind of song melodies you really like.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Hooks and RiffsHooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.

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