The Art of Writing Great Melodies

The Art of Writing Great Melodies


This blog is a continuation from previously published blogs on songwriting which you can read when you click on the titles
How To Write Chords To Your Melody Lines, Some Scale And Chord Theory and Understanding How Chord Progressions Work.

I wanted to dedicate this new blog to the art of melody in songwriting.

More than anything, it is “melody” that is THE most important part of a song.
After all: melody IS the story.

Oftentimes, when I ask students which is more important; “melody” or “lyrics”, they have a hard time answering that questions.
The answer is that melody trumps lyrics.

If the melody is not inviting or interesting; nobody will care how good your lyrics are.
Your listeners are going to lose interest no matter what.

Unfortunately though: many singer-songwriters I work with, have a hard time coming up with good melodies.

Very often their melodies sound bland, uninteresting.
There are many reasons for this.
One of those reasons is that they just sing along while strumming chords, and only sing notes that belong to the chords they are strumming.

The result of that is that melody notes, get lost in the chord.
A great analogy: it’s like wearing all-black clothes, paint your face black, and then go stand against a black wall.
Nobody will notice you. Your presence gets lost in the background.

The same happens with melodies that only consist of chord tones: they get lost in the chord.
None of the melody notes create cool colors or cool tension against the chords.
Too much vanilla, not enough spice.

Ear training helps overcome the inability to hear and sing notes that create tension against chords.
Another good way to overcome this is to write a capella, and then add your chords to the melody afterward.

The following video discusses this.

Here’s a couple of tips and techniques to help you write better melodies.

A. Writing A Capella.

You don’t need to be able to play guitar or any instrument to write songs.
You can write melodies a capella, which means: vocally without the accompaniment of any instruments.

Sing the melodies you come up with, on a tape recorder, without playing your instrument.
Melodies consist of short melodic phrases, which when put together, form verses or choruses.
Later on, when you finished writing your melody lines, try to figure out the chords that go with your song.

If a melody comes to you, but you don’t have lyrics yet, sing “la la la la laaaa”.

As I touched upon earlier: melody is more important than lyrics.
You can have the best most fabulous lyrics, but if your melody line is not strong, nobody is going to like the song, and nobody will have any interest whatsoever in listening to what you are saying.

B. Melody rewriting.

Never assume that your initial melody cannot be improved.
Always find ways to improve melody lines.
Try different options always.

It could be changing one note, or leaving a note out or adding a note, or changing the rhythmic placement of a note.

I always like using the Stevie Wonder song “I Was Made To Love Her” as an example of how important rhythmic placement is.
Imagine that you would be writing this song, and your lyrics say “I was made to love her”.

Which version do you think your boyfriend/girlfriend would prefer?

“I (rhythmic space)… was made to love her”


“I was made to love (rhythmic space) … her”

Check out the following video.

This example clearly shows how rhythmic placement can change the meaning of your message.
In this particular example: just by varying the rhythmic placement of the words, you turn a song from being about you to being about somebody else.

C. Repetition.

This is extremely important in melody writing.
Repetition makes a song “memorable”.
Repetition also makes your song more “likable” because people connect to something that sticks to their minds.

In addition” repetition is the glue that glues the whole storytelling together.
Without repetition of melodic phrases, a song becomes hard to follow, as it is meandering about without clear direction from one melody line to the next random melody line.

There are 2 kinds of repetition in melody:

a) Rhythmic repetition:

repeating a certain distinct rhythm in your melody.

For example:
The note placement in the verse melody of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”.

b) Melodic repetition:

using a certain group of notes (melody line) that you repeat.

“She loves you, Yeah yeah yeah” (3 times that melodic line = the whole chorus).
“Can’t buy me love” (3 times that melodic line = the whole chorus)

D. Using short phrases.

Short phrases are more memorable. You want it to be memorable when you write a song.

Do not cram in too many notes in a phrase.
Fewer notes are always better.

Also: don’t try to cram in too many melody lines in a song section.
Simpler is always better.

The following video discusses how melodic phrases, make melodic sentences, which turn into verses or choruses.

E. Using logical note sequences.

Don’t have weird intervallic lines: they are harder to sing back… hence, again, harder to memorize.

Melody lines that are simple are always better.
People love: “simple”.

Typically: melodies move by step most of the time, with the occasional intervallic leap to keep the melody interesting.
If a melody is too intervallic, it becomes less conventional, more “jumpy” and thus harder to follow.

F. Incorporating nonsense syllables.

Like: “ooh” and “aahh” and so on.

Examples: “OOhh Baby I Love Your Way (Peter Frampton).

Using nonsense syllables helps make the song more memorable and more expressive.

G. Using fresh rhythms.

Come up with a rhythm that sticks to the mind for your melody line.

I am not talking here about the guitar accompaniment or rhythm section.
I am specifically talking about the note placement and rhythmic flow of your melody.

Notice how great melodies, typically don’t consist of too many sustained notes or evenly spaced quarter notes.
Doing so would make a melody very boring.

It also makes it sound unnatural, because no – bo – dy – talks – like – that.

Just think for a second of the rhythmic note placement in songs you know.
“Help… I need somebody”. When you tap out those melodic rhythms with your hand on the table, you have some pretty nifty rhythms.

Or “She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah”.

You get the picture: great melodies contain nice combinations of a multitude of rhythmic techniques:

  1. Syncopation
  2. Starting a melody line on the upbeat
  3. Ties
  4. Combinations of quarter notes, eights and or sixteenth notes
  5. Rhythmic accents on certain notes.
  6. etc.

While all of this might seem like a no-brainer to a more experienced singer-songwriter, it’s amazingly common for songwriting students to write melodies that consist of mainly long sustained notes.

H. Varying the rhythms (in different song sections).

It is a given that your verse melody will more than likely have a different rhythmic feel than your chorus melody.
For one: verses are always more “narrative” and choruses are always more “lyrical/melodic”.

After all: the verse is where you tell the story. You explain what happened, what the song is all about, what the situation is.
In the chorus: you get to the point of the song. The chorus sums it all up.

I. Magic moments and prosody.

Strong melodies oftentimes have a note somewhere that “jumps out”.
It is typically a higher or lower note that draws that attention and makes the melody stand out more.
A very expressive smart thing to do is using “prosody”.

Prosody means: connecting your melody to your lyric by emphasizing certain words in your lyrics with notes in the melody.

For example: let’s say you have the word “low” in your lyrics… you could then write your melody line in such a way that right on that word, your melody jumps down to a very low note so as to enhance and draw the attention to that word in the lyrics.

These are the magical moments that make your song stand out from anything else out there.

A great example of prosody is the Beatles song “I’m So Tired”.
You literally feel the tiredness in the song. The subdued vocals, the behind the beat vocal phrasing, the behind the beat drumming, the long “sooooooo” in “I’m soooooooo tired…”, etc.

Another great example: “Help”
1 word, 1 syllable, 1 note: HELP!

All band members all together shout it out.

It’s powerful, it sums up the whole song, and it immediately attracts attention.

Another great example is the song “Yesterday”

“Yesterday… All my troubles seemed SO FAR away”
The melody keeps climbing further and further away from the word “Yesterday”, almost up an entire scale step by step… to climax at its furthest distance from the word “Yesterday” on the word “so” and then climbing back down 1 melody step on “far away”.

That whole long scalar walks away from “yesterday”, enhances the impression and feel that it is indeed… “sooooo far away”.

J. Using appropriate range.

Most melodies are usually written within a 10-note range (about an octave and a half).
You want to avoid writing in a wider range than that because otherwise, most vocalists will not be able to sing your song.

In addition: when the range of your melody is too small, the melody (hence: the song) is going to sound monotonous and boring.

Good tip: writing your chorus in a higher range than the verse will elevate it and make it stand out more.

K. Signature licks.

This is pertaining more to the arrangement of your song rather than to melody writing.
All great tunes have little hooks that jump out in the overall arrangement.

You want to have something already in your intro; that makes the song sound fresh, inviting, and that draws in the listener.

This can be a certain catchy melody line in the piano part, or a certain rhythmic idea that keeps repeating in a guitar strum part, or a triangle, or a weird sound that draws the attention.

Then a good thing to do: is repeating that idea that your song started with, as a turnaround (interlude) transitioning from the choruses into the verses.

L. Modeling after a hit.

Listen critically to songs you like or songs that are played on the radio, and analyze the songs.

Try to look for all the above writing techniques in songs you listen to.
Then: “tailor” your songs to the melodic writing methods of other songwriters.

A good exercise: write a melody to the lyrics of an already existing song.

I have worked and co-written songs with really great singer-songwriters, who wrote songs by writing a new melody over existing John Mayor songs, with fantastic results.


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Leave a Comment

  1. Taura Eruera Says:

    I’m glad you’re talking about melody,

    June 26th, 2014 at 7:20 pm