by Molly-Ann Leikin
No matter how sophisticated our technology, a melody is still a series of single notes with rhythm. Nobody ever sings chords or tracks. They sing individual notes and rhythm. Period.
While creating music, some of us might hear melodic and/or rhythmic ideas in our heads, then high hurdle the sofa en route to the keyboard to play and record them right away. Others may not hear anything specific but will feel that lightning urge to create and hope they'll find some magic hidden between the black and white keys. But no matter where we find our music, or where it finds us, a melody is still a series of single notes with rhythm.
You can't hum a track.
When there are problems with a melody, (and most of them can't be fixed in the studio), they can be solved very simply by going back to the individual notes. Never mind how good the drum fills or harmonies are, or how cool the sax sounds in the bridge. If you find you have melody problems, and your hooks aren't strong enough, go back to square one - note one, and let's see where the trouble is.
I think of choruses as nursery rhymes for adults - short, repetitive, irresistibly singalongable, easy to remember. This may sound silly or disparaging to those of you with Julliard degrees, or who've been in bands all your lives. But if you aren't getting where you thought you should have gotten by now in your careers, you could change all that for the better in ten minutes.
When my clients are having melody problems, I assign them the Nursery Rhyme Game. That is simply choosing five different nursery rhymes - doesn't matter which ones - "Mary Had a Little Lamb", "Humpty Dumpty", "Jack and Jill", "Itsy Bitsy Spider", "Ring around a Rosie" - any five. All nursery rhymes have just one musical section, which I call the verse. This exercise will show you how to write a simple, repetitive chorus to each of those verses, and that is basic melody construction.
Step One: from the last note of the verse melody, go up a major third to the first note of the chorus. (e.g., C to E). Notice I said note, not chord.
Step two: tap a rhythm on your knee or on your desk - a rhythm that is dramatically different from the rhythm of the verse melody. Try several different rhythms, - don't stop with the first thing that pops into your head. Record everything. You never know what'll come up and you may not remember some of the good stuff. Save it all.
I strongly suggest you do this exercise on a keyboard. I love guitars, but most of us play chords on them, not individual notes.
Step three: once you have a rhythm that you like that is unexpected and original, starting on the note a major third up from the last note of the verse, add individual notes to create a short chorus. Make sure you repeat your chorus's first line somewhere in the body of that section. Beginners will write lines one and three the same, two and four the same, but you can write your choruses however you like.
Let’s try a playful approach.
I suggest you vary the number of lines, and the number of syllables per line. Say a section has five lines. Maybe line one has seven syllables. Line two has four, line three has five, line four has eight, line five has seven. This will keep you from simplifying too much and being predictable.
And be careful not to borrow someone else's melody.
Step four: test your chorus with your verse. Is it surprisingly different? Or is it too similar? Could you tweak it a little? Change even one note? Remove two? Vary a rhythm pattern? Record everything and put your files aside for a day or two. Then listen again. If your new "melody" makes it through the night, chances are it's right. And although it's "just a nursery rhyme", you'll have very deliberately constructed a note-by-note melody with a strong hook. When you're 100% happy with it, THEN add the chords and the track.
Change the process, change the result.
For more suggestions on easily strengthening your choruses, please visit my website, songmd.com, for 80+ free blogs, and read my new book, INSIDER SECRETS TO HIT SONGWRITING IN THE DIGITAL AGE.
Write well today. I’m in your corner all the way.
Emmy nominee Molly-Ann Leikin has written with and for everyone from Katy Perry to Cher, Tina Turner, Anne Murray, Glen Campbell, Billy Preston – even Yitzi Ya Ya and the Yo Yo’s. She has composed themes and songs for over six dozen TV shows and movies, including Violet, which won an Oscar.
And she has mentored two generations of Grammy-winning lyricists, songwriters, and singer/songwriters.
Molly takes morning walks, bakes corn muffins, practices yoga, and flosses. Her website is www.songmd.com, where she offers one, free, fifteen-minute consultation to new clients.
For information on the 28th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: https://www.songwriting.net