You’ll sometimes see discussions amongst songwriters on the topic of how many notes a good melody should have. In other words, how much of a range, when you compare the lowest notes to the highest ones, should there be when considering good melodies?
History tells us that there’s no good answer to that question, because some famous melodies will span an octave and a half (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”), while others will stay within 4 or 5 notes (“The Times They Are A-Changin’.”)
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The discussion might get you thinking about what we actually mean by a good melody, because some songs may not be about that gorgeous (or powerful or notable) melody, but rather the general feel of the song (“Got To Give It Up“).
Or maybe, along with a great melody, the lyric fights for top billing: “What a Wonderful World.”
A great melody probably means :
- We love to sing it.
- We find it easy to remember.
- We feel that it partners well with the lyric.
- We note how well it’s supported by the chords.
- It stands out as one of the best features of the song.
You’d be forgiven for believing that there’s a certain kind of magic involved in the writing of a good melody. But one of the most important characteristics — the one that makes it less about magic and more about structure — relates to patterns.
The actual notes you use in a melody aren’t nearly as important as the patterns you make with those notes. Patterns imply repetition, and so creating a cell of notes that gets repeated is crucial to a successful melody.
That cell might repeat almost exactly, as we hear in “Born In the U.S.A.”, but it might merely be approximate repetition involving different pitches, the kind we hear in the verse of “What a Wonderful World.”
Without patterns, melodies have no power. They aren’t fun to sing, aren’t easy to sing, and are practically impossible to remember.
The best exercise a songwriter can do to improve melody-writing ability is to listen to great songs and make note of:
- when the melodies use fragments that repeat note-for-note, as you’ll notice in much of the melodic structure of Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love“;
- when the melodies use fragments that repeat in an approximate way, like we hear in “California Dreamin'” (John Phillips, Michelle Phillips);
The next time you find yourself in a discussion about how many notes make a good melody, you’re probably discussing the wrong thing. It has little to do with number of notes, but much more to do with how you organize them.
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