The best song melodies are the ones that have a definable shape. You may not have ever thought of a melody in terms of its shape, but all that means is that good melodies:
- use recognizable, memorable patterns, and…
- can be described generally when it comes to its overall design.
Let’s look at those two important qualities of song melodies. In music, a recognizable pattern is a short musical fragment that gets repeated over and over again, sometimes literally, and sometimes just approximately.
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The song “Free Fallin'” (Tom Petty) is a great example of this. The main melody is comprised of a simple, 3-note idea, where some things happen over and over again:
- The melody favours the 3rd degree of the scale (F major), where everything keeps leading up to that note A. So we hear Petty hitting that A over and over again.
- That note A is almost always followed by a short leap downward to F (except in the chorus, where it descends by step)
It’s not so profound, it’s just part of this song’s signature, and it’s wonderfully catchy. Repetition in music makes it easy for listeners to remember the song, and if it’s a really attractive pattern, that repetitious idea usually becomes part of the song’s hook.
A song’s shape can strengthen the formal design of the song, and pull all the various sections of the song tighter together. When you hear melodies, for example, moving upward over time, and then moving downward again, that’s a design (the inverted-U or inverted-V design) that helps listeners make sense of everything.
Avoiding Randomness in Melodic Design
If you’re wondering if your songs are using well-designed melodies, here’s one thing you can do: Take a sheet of paper anddraw a timeline at the bottom that represents the length of your verse or your chorus.
Now, start singing your verse, and allow the pencil to move upward as your voice moves up, and move downward as your voice moves down. You may need to try this a couple of times to get the dimensions right… The first time you try it, you may be running out of room and you haven’t even reached the midway point of your tune.
But once you’ve done it, sit back and take a good look at it. Does it look completely random? Remember that every unique melody will have some aspect of randomness to it, but for most songs, you should see parts of the line that look like other parts of that line.
You might also (hopefully) notice an overall shape — something like an inverted-U shape, where the melody starts low, generally moves higher, and then generally moves lower. Or you might see that it sits mainly around one particular low note for the start of the first, then jumps up and sits around a higher note.
Any pattern that you can see is a good thing. If the line you’ve drawn looks completely random, a series of what would otherwise look like shapeless scribbles on a page, you may have just found the problem with your melodies.
And if your lines do look random, don’t despair. Take that as an important lesson that you’ve just learned, and then find ways to incorporate more repetition, more engaging melodic ideas.
Some songs aren’t about melody, so don’t worry if your song sounds great, but your melodies are looking and sounding a bit random. There are other aspects to songs that are important.
But if you’re trying to find better ways to improve your melody-writing prowess, doing this exercise will help you see the problem as well as hear it.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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