In order for a melody to be successful, it needs to be easily remembered by a listener. If your melodies sound like aimless wandering, you’re going to have trouble building an audience for it.
The best melodies out there are the ones that people can hum or sing, even if they aren’t great singers. When someone is able to hum your melody, it means that they’ve internalized it, and that’s a crucial step in building a fan base for it.
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There are lots of reasons that melodies are successful, but here are five important characteristics that you’ll want to keep in mind as you write your next song:
- Give your melody a memorable shape. When song melodies sound random or complex, they’re difficult for people to internalize and remember. Some songs are more about melody than others. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is most famous for its beautiful melody. It is a gradually rising melody, and that continuous upward moving of the melody is part of its iconic shape.
- Let a chorus melody sit higher in pitch than the verse melody. This gives your chorus extra musical energy. There are songs where the verse is higher (“No Reply At All” – Genesis, for example), but it’s tricky to make it work.
- Construct your melodies with a good amount of stepwise motion, fewer leaps. Stepwise motion means having most of your melody consist of notes whose letter names are adjacent. You’ll see this characteristic in the melody for “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – lots of stepwise motion with occasional small leaps. Occasional leaps do a lot to inject musical energy into a melody. They can be dramatic, emotional and meaningful, like the upward leaps in The Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New” (Thom Bell, Linda Creed). Too many leaps, though, can make a melody difficult for an audience to lock in and remember.
- Create melodies that make good use of repetition. Whether exact repetition or simply approximate, you’d be surprised how great a role repetition plays in good song melodies. A song like Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” builds an entire song where each melody is comprised of constantly repeating, short phrases that sound more like emotional call outs. These short, repeated phrases make it a powerful song.
- Be sure your melodies partner well with your lyrics. Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is actually a good example of this as well. You’ll want to be sure that certain principles are followed: keep melodies low and quiet for thoughtful, introspective lyrics; move melodies higher when emotion builds; place melodies high in the singer’s range for more intense emotions. Listen to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” and think about the choices that went into the kind of melody that was written to support the lyrics. It’s a masterpiece of melodic shape, chord choice, phrasing… everything that makes a song great.
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