keyboard player and songwriter

Making Sure Your Song Melodies are Memorable

It’s the holy grail of songwriting: writing a melody that everyone comes to know, and everyone walks down the street humming. Well, we can dream, can’t we?

In order to write a melody that everyone (potentially) hums, you need to write a melody that is easy to remember. And then it needs to be more than just easy to sing. If ease were the only criterion, we’d just write one-note melodies and be done with it.

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Beyond ease, there’s got to be something catchy and something beautiful about that melody. So now our list of what makes a melody memorable is starting to get longer: it needs to be easy to sing, catchy and beautiful.

If you feel that your own song melodies are lacking in whatever it takes to truly cement itself into the musical mind of your audience, here are five tips to help you:

  1. A good melody uses repetition of basic elements as way of grabbing an audience’s attention. People automatically engage in pattern recognition when they listen to music. So unless it’s repeating mindlessly and endlessly, your listeners are going to need to hear elements within your melody repeat. (Think of how many times you hear something repeat in the melody for Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep” as a good example of what I’m talking about.)
  2. A good melody mixes stepwise motion (one note to an adjacent note upward or downward) with occasional leaps. If you think of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, you’ll find that it moves primarily by stepwise motion, but every once in a while there’s a leap, where it skips a few notes. Those occasional leaps add a bit of excitement and unpredictability to your melody – a real plus.
  3. A good melody has a shape you can trace. Try this: convert the up and down direction of a good song melody to a line drawing you do with a pencil, where the line moves upward as the melody moves up, and downward as the melody moves down. You’ll find that for good song melodies, the line you draw isn’t random: you can see shapes repeating over time.
  4. A good chorus melody usually sits higher in pitch than a good verse melody. Then when it cycles back to a verse 2, it moves lower again. This up-and-down aspect of melodic range is a vital part of generating song energy over time.
  5. A good melody avoids too many large leaps. One large leaps can be fine (like the start of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), but many large leaps make a melody hard to sing well. Many musicians criticize the start of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for this reason. Those numerous ascending leaps work well in an instrumental rendering, but it’s all a bit hard to sing.

There is another factor in good melodies, which is the beauty and ease with which they get supported by chords, and how they pair up with lyrics. It seems that the more you consider in the formula to make a beautiful melody, the more it almost seems that you need a bit of magic.

It’s true that there is a bit of luck involved in coming up with a great melody. But those five tips listed above can be used as a kind of troubleshooting list, particularly if you thought you’d written something beautiful, but find that it’s coming up short.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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