by Karen Randle
As a songwriter finding a great melody is like a miner spotting a flake of gold. It doesn’t guarantee a great song or a gold strike, but it sure increases the chances. In this article we will show you the best spots to dig on Music Mountain in hopes of finding a great melody!
While the definition of the melody is simply notes in a variety of pitches and lengths, this entity that these notes make up is so much more. The melody is what often helps a listener remember the song, lyrics, and even the artist. In our drumming patterns, bass lines, and chord progressions we can get away with shared use, but our melodies have to be unique and stand out! Below are 10 ideas to help you find and enhance your next great song melody.
1. Scales and Intervals
A thesaurus of musical scales is your best friend. Try playing new scales, boring scales, and exotic scales. Play the notes in ascending and descending order at first to get the feel of the scale and then experiment. If you are going to sing play scales in keys and modes that are friendly with your voice. Pay attention to the intervals of the notes, there are many great videos of famous songs and the intervals they use.
2. Chords and Arpeggios
A memorable melody is often the overlying chords of the song arpeggiated, or played one note at a time. Like your scales and intervals, having a solid idea of how chords are built will help you with melody construction. By knowing which chords in a key are tonic, dominant, and more you will be able to convey the proper emotion necessary to convey tension and resolution in your song. If we are stuck on which note to use next, the scales and chords will usually show us the way.
3. Chord Progressions
When we put chords together in particular orders these are progressions and every genre of music has its own. There are really only a handful of chord progressions that cover most all songs and you should know them all. This is a great way to start a new song, you simply pick a progression and play it. From there use chord extensions, substitutions, and key modulations to create some fresh ideas.
4. Rhythms and Meters
Try different time signatures and rhythms, this is very easy in our age of apps. It is possible to download software with drum machines, backing grooves, and every rhythm you can imagine. Look up different time signatures and genres to play your scales and chord progressions over. In fact if you are struggling with music theory this is your best step. Play a backing tempo, rhythm, track, or any music without a melody and start jamming. For those aspiring hip hop artists a drum machine or sampler is your sketchpad.
5. Change Your Sound
Use different instruments, effects, and try new technology. Many famous songs were written when bands found new toys in the studio to play with. Try another instrument out at a jam, especially if it is from another instrument family. Synthesizers and computer driven music are great because they can give you different sounds effects and abilities. These days synths are associated with EDM and home music production but some of the best songwriters love their abilities to create new sounds. A great melody needs creativity and changing your perspective is part of that.
6. Steps and Skips
So far we have mostly gone over methods of melody inspiration, there are also some basic rules when writing them. In music moving one note over in the scale is a step and moving more than one step is a skip or a leap. It makes sense we usually want to move in stepwise motion as that is the easiest way for most people to sing. However our song also needs some skips and leaps to make it interesting and exciting. Play your intervals again and see how high you can go in a leap; this will help you keep your melodies realistic.
7. Song Structure
Along with the note movement, the entire melody structure of the song is important. Sometimes it is simple features like shorter notes in the verse than in the chorus. It is also common to raise the pitch of the chorus notes, especially to add a climactic note change in right before the chorus begins. One way to make simple melodies better is to give them more transitions. Don’t just shift from verse to chorus and back, add a bridge in or a part with a slightly altered melody.
If you are writing your average pop tune then you definitely want the best hook of your melody to repeat. Regardless of the genre much of the melody is still all about repetition. Even within a good hook you will also find many of the same notes to make it easier to sing. It is common in many great choruses to see repeated notes with a couple short leaps added in. We say melodies are more special than other repetitive aspects of the song like the drums, but in reality a great melody relies on the same sounds people like to hear all the time.
9. Mind the Lyrics
We focus so much on the musical aspect we can forget that many songwriters start with a lyrical approach. Sometimes the lyrics and music come at the same creative moment and others we have to search for a melody. Common mistakes are cramming too many words into a line or not sticking to the proper syllables. Just like some notes sound weird together so do some consonants and words. If your melody will have lyrics, people need to be able to sing the notes and words and not get tongue tied. (Unless you are aiming for a mondegreen or hard to sing tune!)
10. Copy and Learn
Listen and replicate what you hear. That’s how music works, we hear someone playing and we get excited and want to copy it. Listen to songs you like and figure the hook or riff out. Play as many songs as you can on your instrument of choice and focus on the melody.. When you repeatedly see how those who have succeeded are doing it, you eventually will figure it out yourself. Practice different genres; sit down and write a cantastoria murder mystery, a troubadour love song, or a dark funeral dirge. Jump right into music by copying what other musicians have done!
This is how great melodies are born. We take what we love and are inspired by and then let our own creativity take hold. And if we practice our craft enough we can find melodies of gold just waiting to be placed in the right song!
For information on the USA Songwriting Competition, go to: https://www.songwriting.net