Melody is one of the most important aspects of any music, regardless of the style or the genre. It is what makes a song memorable. Chord progression and rhythm is extremely important, but people usually recognize a song by its melody. Melody is what the average listener will sing along – if the melody is well crafted.
But how do songwriters come up with melodies? I will start with the very basics but don’t worry if you already know the basics, because we will get to more advanced stuff after that.
What is a melody?
A song can be broke down into:
– and chords
A melody is a sequence of single notes, placed on a timeline. It has two dimensions: pitch (higher and lower notes) and rhythm (timeline).
A melody is also called a “top-line” because it’s on the top of the music = usually, it has the highest pitch in the music. This is probably one of the reasons why melody affects the listener on a higher emotional level compared to any other element of the music. A higher pitch always creates attention. (Think about a police siren, or someone is screaming!)
What is pitch?
Each note has a certain frequency. Some notes sound higher, some notes sound lower in pitch. We created (or more like discovered) a system for this, which we call tonality or key.
What is rhythm?
We create rhythm when we place the notes on a timeline.
Contrary to traditional music education, rhythm has nothing to do with the duration or length of the notes! Think about percussive instruments, drums – they play notes without any duration, yet we usually associate rhythm with percussive instruments. Also, musicologists always visualize rhythm in a binary system. And in a binary system, there is no duration, only rhythm.
So melody exists in these two dimensions: rhythm (timeline) and tonality (pitch).
How to start writing a melody
First, you need to know the basics of music theory. If you don’t know anything about music theory, you don’t need to be afraid.
It’s really easy and you can learn everything important in a matter of a few hours.
Music theory is about the building blocks of music: scales, keys, chords, and intervals. These are the “lego bricks” of music, so you don’t have to be afraid if you are a beginner songwriter, it’s really not that complicated.
Identify the scale
A melody is built up from a scale, so it’s a good idea to identify what scale you want to use for creating your melody. A scale is just a set of notes, for example, the pentatonic scale is 5 notes. (C, D, E, G, A). Or another example is the regular major scale, for example: C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
It doesn’t mean that your melody needs to use ALL of the notes within the scale! In fact, those kinds of melodies sound really bad. The scale is only the environment where our melody exists.
Different scales gives different moods for the melody. But it’s always a good idea to start with a simple major scale OR with the pentatonic scale.
Make the music first
The easiest way to start creating melodies is if you have the music first. By “music”, I mean the base of the song: a chord progression with some rhythm, maybe a drumbeat. You can use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, like Cubase or ProTools), to create the music. You can do this even if you plan to record the song with an acoustic band later.
Believe me, this is a HUGE help. It doesn’t have to be a perfect arrangement with the perfect mix. The purpose of a basic music is to have a foundation that helps to create melodies.
If you have the music first, then you already have the two dimensions where your melody can move. (Rhythm and tonality).
Of course you can start a song with creating the melody first, but a melody can be harmonized many different ways, with totally different outcomes.
When you have the music, you can play it for yourself and you can start to improvize some melodies on it.
If you don’t want to create the music in a DAW, you can also play your chord progression on a guitar or on a piano. This way you have more control over the tempo of the music. The point is: it’s much easier to come up with melodies if you already have a chord progression for the song.
Always SING your melody ideas
Don’t play your melody ideas with your musical instrument. You can play a lot of nonsense with an instrument, but you can only sing what’s inside your head, and this makes your melody more natural! (This is important, even if you are creating a melody for an instrument, not only for vocal melodies!)
I recommend watching the documentary “Songwriter”, which is a film about Ed Sheeran, and shows how he created one of his albums. In the movie, you can see him playing his guitar and always singing his melody ideas.
ALWAYS record your ideas
You should always record your melody ideas with a microphone or with your phone. The secret of writing good melodies is in the ability of selecting the best ideas from hundreds of ideas.
Most people think that great songwriters are capable of writing great melodies on the first try. It’s not how it works. When they asked Pharrell Williams to write the song “Happy”, he wrote 10 complete songs (not ideas, but complete songs!). He threw away the first 9 songs, and the tenth song is the one we know as “Happy”.
So you need to create tons of ideas, and then choose the best melody ideas from those.
Follow your gut
You don’t have to be an expert or a music professor to decide which of your melody ideas are the best. Deep down, every average music listener can FEEL if a melody is good or not. So you just have to follow your gut.
Trust me, you will FEEL if the melody is good. Not sure about it? Then drop it, and create more melodies.
Take a break sometimes
Do you know the effect of semantic satiation? Semantic satiation is a psychological effect when you repeat a word so many times that it temporarily loses its meaning. The same effect is happening with music if you are a songwriter. Sometimes we work on a melody for so long, listen to the same melody a thousand times, so the effect hits us: we don’t know if it is good or not anymore, because we have listened to it so many times.
That’s why sometimes you need to take a break. Go for a walk or drink a coffee, watch a movie, but don’t touch the same song for at least a day. And sometimes walking or any physical exercise can really boost your brain! And always keep your phone or voice recorder close to you, so you can record everything that pops into your mind.
Another thing you can do, if you listened to a melody too many times, you can leave it for a while and start to make another song – this way you can work on different songs in parallel, but you will never listen too much to one musical idea.
Test different tempos
The tempo is the speed of your music. Some melodies sound good in a faster tempo, other melodies are better if they are played in a slower tempo. You need to test different tempos and you will feel what is the best tempo for your melody.
Many times the genre or style of your music will determine the tempo somewhat. For example, people dance to salsa music, so a salsa song can’t be too slow or too fast.
You can check the tempo of other songs in your genre, just search “BPM <song name>” in Google. For example “BPM shape of you”. songbpm.com is a really cool website where you can find the tempo of many popular songs.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the lyrics yet – you can hum or sing any gibberish to create a melody.
And by the way, do you know the meaning of “ba-dee-ya” in the chorus of the song “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire? It doesn’t mean anything! It’s the gibberish the songwriter always used when he didn’t know what to use in the lyrics. And then he just left the gibberish in the lyrics of this song. It still became a pretty successful song.
BUT, if you have lyrics, you need to be aware of the prosody. This means, you need to match the words to the melody in a way that it sounds natural.
Here is a trick: If you don’t have ideas for a melody, but you have the lyrics, you can create the rhythm first, starting from the lyrics! There are short and long syllables, so the lyrics itself already has a rhythm, even without any music.
The most overlooked topic in songwriting is rhythm. But rhythm is one of the most important aspects of a great song! In fact, melodies don’t have to be “melodic” or they don’t have to move a lot in order to be catchy. Great melodies are mostly about rhythm.
Listen to the melody of “Dark Necessities” from Red Hot Chili Peppers. The melody is mostly static (singing only one note), but the rhythm makes this melody sound good. This melody is using the Rhythm Code™, which is the key to most successful songs. (The Rhythm Code is the first chapter of the Songwriting Essentials course.)
If your melody sounds “dumb”, most of the time it’s because of the rhythm. You need to be playful with the rhythm, and experiment with it.
The Rhythm Code gives us a huge advantage because it shows us a guide on how we should shape the rhythm in order to make our melody sound better.
Where to get inspiration when you don’t know how to start
Listen to music! But the truth is most people listening to music the wrong way. They listen to music on the bus, or while they are driving, while they are cooking. That’s not really listening. When you are really listening, you need to focus 100% on the music. Not 80%, not 95%, not 99%. But 100%.
You can get a LOT of inspiration and ideas just by listening to your favorite songs. But don’t just listen to music in your genre. You can get ideas for melodies from VERY different genres. Music is a universal language, so it doesn’t matter what genre you play, we speak the same language!
If you want to REALLY understand what’s happening in your favorite melodies, you need to write them down.
In order to know what worked for HUNDREDS of successful songwriters before, you need to write down the melodies of successful songs. This is far the BEST method of learning how to create EFFECTIVE melodies.
Once you see the music visually, it’s much easier to analyze it, and find the “patterns”.
For example: How do you make a chorus melody sound like a chorus? – you can recognize what’s common in choruses when you analyze the songs.
Your melodies need to be:
– affect the listener emotionally
And all those successful songs have these characteristics.
Here is how you can cheat and save a lot of time
I analyzed more than 2000 successful songs, and I collected all those “patterns” and tools that are used by ALL successful songwriters.
I published all this knowledge in the Songwriting Essentials online course. So if you don’t have the time to write down the songs, you can cheat your way with this course, and save a LOT of time.
Writing a melody can be intimidating and sometimes frustrating, especially if you are new in songwriting. But this is a skill that can be developed, and learning the tricks from successful songs can make a huge difference in the speed of your learning process.
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