Louis Armstrong

What Makes Good Song Melodies Memorable?

A key part of success when it comes to song melodies is writing something that audiences easily remember. If it’s possible to consider beauty and memorability as two separate entities, it’s worth spending a bit of time thinking about a) what makes melodies beautiful, and b) what makes them easy to remember. You’re going to discover, however, that both qualities are important aspects of listeners being able to remember your tunes.

A Beautiful Melody

No melody works well if it doesn’t pair up nicely with the chords that are supporting it and the lyrics that get applied to it. Partnership between song elements is a crucial principle of good songwriting.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” - 4th ed.Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” is the part that deals with song melodies – how to write them, how they need the support of a good chord progression, and how they need to pair up with the song’s lyric. Get the eBook that thousands of songwriters are using to polish their technique!

But considering melodies without necessarily thinking of the other paired-up components, when you look at the songs we tend to think of as beautiful (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Hallelujah”, “What a Wonderful World”, etc.), you’ll notice two main characteristic: 1) a melody that explores a wide range, and 2) one that often incorporates a melodic leap or two.

By “wide range”, we mean usually at least an octave. By “melodic leap”, we mean that after a series of stepwise notes (i.e., melodies that move from one note to the one beside it), we get a leap — often upwards, but possibly in either direction.

This kind of wide-ranging melody with leaps that create melodic interest are a vital part of melodic beauty.

A Memorable Melody

Beauty aside, what makes melodies (or anything in music, when you think about it) memorable is: a noticeable pattern. Noticing patterns is something humans are good at; how quickly we pick up a pattern is something that sets us apart from other animals.

In melodies, patterns can be short (like Beethoven’s famous opening of his Symphony No. 5). Or it can be longer, like noticing when verses and choruses repeat.

For a melody, we’re usually talking about one song section. Within that one section we try to pick up as many aspects of patterned writing as possible. With “What a Wonderful World”, for example, we pick up several patterned aspects of the composition:

  1. The repeating rhythmic pattern. We hear that pattern when we hear a few short notes, followed by a long one: “..Red roses, too”, “I see them bloom”, “For me and you.”
  2. The repeating shape. We hear the melody quickly rise to its highest notes within the first phrase, then gradually descend.
  3. The repeating melodic motif. We hear the short notes repeat on the same pitch (“red roses”), after which the long note descends by one tone (“red roses TOO“)

And you’ll notice that those three patterns (and there are likely more, if you spend more time dissecting the song) have a way of interlocking and layering, so that the repeating patterns support each other.

The layering characteristics of melodic patterns makes each pattern easier for the listener to remember, more so than if they were considered as separate qualities.

When it comes to structuring melodies, you will want to consider the power of repeating lines of melody within one small section. For example, in “Rolling In the Deep” (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth), the chorus melody is comprised of short phrases:

We could have had it all
Rolling in the deep,
You had my heart inside of your hands
And you played it to the beat

If we assign a letter as a label for each melodic fragment, we’d call the first line ‘A’; the second line we’d call A1 (the ‘1’ gets added to indicate that it’s basically a repeat of A, but with a small variation.

Line 3 would be called A, and the final line gets labeled as B, as it’s completely different from the other ones: A A1 A B.

The repetition of lines is an important part of creating something that’s easy to remember. Songs where nothing is repeated (or if the patterns of repetition are so complex as to be hard to notice) mean that you can have a beautiful melody (lovely contour, beautiful overall structure), but one that’s hard to remember.

So memorability in song melodies has more to do with being able to notice and then recall patterns than it has to do with beauty.

You should consider, however, that listeners need to be motivated to remember. That’s where melodic beauty comes in. While patterns are what make melodies easy to remember, beauty makes it more likely that an audience will feel motivated enough to want to remember it.

In that sense, beauty and memorability wind up being important partners in the quest to write song melodies that listeners find easy to remember.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Learn how to put your lyrics front and centre in your songwriting process.

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