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Writing Song Melodies: Be Careful With Melodic Leaps

A song melody is made up of notes that either move by step (i.e. adjacent notes: C-D-E-D-E-F…) or by leap (i.e. skipping a note, or several notes, to get the next note: C-A).

It’s probably correct to say that most song melodies use stepwise motion more than leaps. Some songs might use mostly leaps in one section, and mostly stepwise in another. “The Star-Spangled Banner“, for example, starts with six consecutive melodic leaps.

Hooks and RiffsSongwriters are very familiar with the chorus hook, but there are other kinds to experiment with, and you will want to discover the power of layering various kinds of hooks in the same song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you how it’s done.

Melodies that move mainly by step (like “Groovy Kind of Love”) are much easier to sing than those that move by leap. There are two main reasons for that:

  1. A leapy melody is a little harder for inexperienced singers to sing in tune, since it requires the vocal apparatus to move quite a bit in order to get the notes right.
  2. A leapy melody moves quickly from low notes to high notes (or high to low for descending melodies), and so singers need to have good vocal control and a good range.

But stepwise melodies mean that if you have one note right, it’s easy enough to find the next note, since it’s very close by.

Even though leapy melodies are harder to sing, a melodic leap has the characteristic of injecting a bit of musical energy into the melodic line, particularly if that leap is in an upward direction. The iconic example of this can be heard in the Christmas classic “O Holy Night“: “O night… Di-VINE…”

As a songwriter, what do you need to keep in mind as you create melodies? Here are some tips:

  1. Your listeners/fans will find it harder to sing leapy melodies. Every good melody will use leaps, but keep the balance of leaps-versus-steps mostly toward stepwise.
  2. Listeners will find it easier to remember melodies that they can sing easily. So a mainly stepwise melody will have the benefit of being easier for your fans to recall and hum while they’re walking down the street.
  3. Try placing melodic leaps at emotionally significant moments of your lyric. A leap upward really draws attention to itself, so putting a melodic leap where you want your audience to feel something is a good thing. It doesn’t need to be a big leap, either. Think of the final “Like a bridge over troubled water” upward leap in the final verse of that song (Simon & Garfunkel), which is only a leap of a 3rd, but it’s so powerful.
  4. Use more (or fewer) melodic leaps to help control the musical energy of the melody line in your song. If you find that your verse sounds too energetic for the chorus that follows, you may find that you’ve used lots of leaps in your verse melody. Finding ways to remove the leaps by replacing them with stepwise motion can be all you need to diminish the verse’s musical energy.
  5. A downward leap can create musical energy by making the upper note of the leap sound higher than it might otherwise sound in a stepwise melody. This is a bit wordy, but an example can demonstrate what I’m talking about here: The 1965 hit “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” (Marvin Hamlisch, Howard Liebling, recorded by Leslie Gore) uses a descending downward leap of a sixth at the very beginning of the melody. That leap downward places special significance on the very first note of the song, being the higher note of the descending leap.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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