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How to write a melody in Lydian

Previously, we made an article about Lydian chord progressions. Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as a “Lydian chord progression”. In this article, we will discuss how we can create melodies in the Lydian mode.

The Lydian mode

Almost all songs are written in a regular major or Ionian mode. And in fact, if you want to write a hit song, you should probably use this regular major mode because nowadays, all hit songs are written in this mode. But you can create a very different sound with the Lydian mode. In Lydian mode, we use the same set of notes, but the IV chord becomes the tonal center. If we play both scales with C as the tonal center, there is only one note difference. But that note is the one that makes a big difference between the two.

the regular major scale

the Lydian scale

How do you write a melody in Lydian?

As I mentioned earlier, the chord progression alone doesn’t determine the mode. The chord progression AND the melody together, but mostly the melody that determines the mode. The best way to figure out how to write melodies in the Lydian mode is by analyzing successful songs that use this mode. So let’s see some examples.

The first example is the song “Man On The Moon” by R.E.M. They use the Lydian mode in the verse, but not in the chorus. The chords in the verse are C major and D major. If we only look at the chord progression, we wouldn’t know if this is in Lydian mode. What gives us the Lydian feel is the melody. First of all, the melody of the verse ends on the note C. This alone gives us the feeling that the tonal center is the note C.

Secondly, in the third line of the verse, the vocal melody goes to a note F# on the chord C major. This gives the distinctive sound of the Lydian mode. So you actually need to use the #11 note in the melody in order to achieve the sound of the Lydian mode. And you need to use it on the right chord. If you play the F# note on the D major chord, that doesn’t give us the Lydian sound because F# is a chord tone of the D major chord.

We can hear another example of a Lydian melody in the song “When We Dance” by Sting. In this song, it’s also the verse melody that is in Lydian mode, but this solution is very different. In this song, they don’t play the Lydian sound with the IV or the V chords. Instead, they use the Lydian sound in the melody on the tonic “I” chord.

Verse and Chorus

What’s interesting, is that in both songs, they only used the Lydian sound in the verse, and in both cases, the chorus is in a regular major or Ionian mode. In the song “Man On The Moon”, the verse is in C-Lydian and the chorus is in G-Ionian. On the other hand, in “When We Dance”, the verse is in E-Lydian, and the chorus is in E-Lydian. Even though these are different solutions, there is one thing that’s common: they both go to a regular Ionian mode with the chorus. But why is that?

It’s probably because the Lydian mode is kind of an unstable mode. When we hear the Lydian mode, we hear an interesting, bright sound. But it just doesn’t feel like “home” the same way as the regular Ionian mode. This is most likely because of the two notes that give us the Lydian sound, the fourth and the seventh scale degree. These two notes are the most unstable notes in the key. We talk about this in more detail in our songwriting course.

So their solution is to make some tension in the verse with the Lydian mode, but they get back “home”, to the Ionian mode with the chorus. This gives a calmer or “arrival” feeling in the chorus, which is a pretty cool songwriting tool to use.

And this effect is especially strong in the case of the first song. When we are in the verse, we feel like the C major chord is the tonal center. But then the chorus starts with the tonic “I” chord (the G-major chord), that’s when we realize that G is the real tonal center. And it’s kind of an unexpected move. Unexpected, but sounds good.

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About the Author

Producer, songwriter of the band Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of the Songwriting Essentials.