If you were to ask for a generic definition from the average layperson for a melody, they’d probably come up with something like: “A series of notes that move up and down.” You’d then remind them that backing vocals also comprise a series of notes that move up and down, and that’s when we start to realize that coming up with a specific definition becomes a bit more complicated.
Well, backing vocals are often a melody of sorts, even if they aren’t the lead melody. The word melody is one of those ones that for every definition we come up with, we’ll think of a song where that definition isn’t quite acceptable. But for now, let’s assume that “a series of notes that move up and down” is enough to cover most tunes from most genres.
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Except that there’s another problem: melodies that use repeating notes as a noticeable feature. An extreme case might be the old 70s novelty hit “Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me.“) Dozens of notes, all sitting on the same pitch. Is it a melody? I think so, and we have no good reason to say it isn’t.
And then there are many songs that tend to sit on and around one pitch for much of the melody, moving up or down only occasionally. Some good examples of these kinds of melodies would be Taylor Swift’s “Our Song,” in which the melody moves in and around D, and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” most of the opening melody of which revolves around C.
And in fact, it’s not hard to find melodies that make great use of repeated notes. Why might composers write melodies that focus so much on one pitch? There are two main reasons.
Keeping a melody restricted to one or two pitches, where at times it can sound almost like a monotone, has a way of giving a bit of power to the lyric. Once the audience believes that the melody is unlikely to suddenly move up or down, they tend to move their attention elsewhere. The first place their attention usually goes is to the lyric.
So one-note melodies are great for songs that offer a strong opinion (social, political or otherwise).
The second benefit of a static melody, especially when those repeated notes happen in a verse, is that the chorus can sound quite energetic by comparison, if the chorus suddenly features melodies that move up and down. The end of the verse of “Like a Rolling Stone” makes that upward leap of a perfect 4th sound exciting and powerful.
In your own songwriting, if you find yourself favouring static melodies, you need to be sure, then, of two things:
- You’ve given the audience an interesting lyric. That lyric needs to be telling a compelling story, or offering a powerful opinion of some sort, such that the words are front and centre in importance.
- You have a different section of the song that does, in fact, offer a melody with a more expansive contour. The best example is “Life is a Rock”, where the verse sits on one or two notes, but the chorus suddenly leaps upward, and then becomes a series of notes in an upward or downward stepwise fashion.
“Hooks 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.