For some songwriters, songwriting seems to be all about writing a great melody. Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Barry Gibb — these are all songwriters for whom the success of their songs is often easily attributable to the quality of the melodies they write.
I mention this, because not all great songs need to be about the melody. Since any good song is the result of the tight partnership between various components, it’s theoretically possible that a song might be better known for its lyric, its innovative chord structure, or perhaps the instrumental performance.
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If you consider McCartney’s “Blackbird“, the melody itself is engaging, easy to hum, and has an enticing contour. But in addition to those important melodic characteristics, it has a really attractive chord progression that tosses in chords that help to form a background, undulating chromatic line:
G Am7 G/B G | C Cdim D D#dim Em Eb |
D C#dim C Cm G/B…
These are chords that stray considerably from what (especially in 1968) would have been normal for a song in any of the pop genres. And I think it’s easy to make the case that the chords make the melody sound even better.
But beyond the chord progression, that melody grabs the audience’s interest by virtue of some time-honoured characteristics that have been qualities found in good melodies for literally centuries:
- The notes move primarily by step, with occasional leaps for interest’s sake.
- When leaps happen, they’re easy leaps to sing. This means that most of the time, you’ll find melodic leaps that form a 3rd or a 5th, and occasionally an octave.
- The rhythm of the melody lock into the rhythm of the lyric. This is a crucial part of making a song singable and memorable.
What does this mean for your own songwriting? I think that for every phrase you write, you need to be able to address the question, “What have I done to make this an attractive, engaging melody?”
Once you’ve got the chords, melodies will often come quickly. But you should avoid the assumption that the first melodic idea you come up with is the best one. In fact, in my own writing, I almost assume the opposite: the second idea will usually be better than the first one.
In any case, every good melody needs to move primarily by step with only occasional, easily-sung leaps, and uses rhythms that make sense when considered with the lyric. Your own good melodies need to do that, and if they don’t, you might be pleased to notice that it doesn’t often take a lot of change to make a weak melody strong.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” includes several eBooks that are meant to make your chord progressions better, including “How to Harmonize a Melody.” It shows you, step-by-step, how to add chords to that melody you’ve created.