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How to write vocal melodies

No doubt that melody is the most important part of a song. Especially a vocal melody. We know that melodies are the most memorable parts of any music. The melody is what most people remember from a song. But many songwriters struggle with writing good vocal melodies for their songs.

I know how hard it is when you just start to write your first songs, and you don’t know how to start. That’s why I collected a lot of useful info to help you get started with writing vocal melodies. So if you want to write better melodies, this article is for you.

Write for the singer

Before you start to write a vocal melody, you need to think about who will be singing it. Every singer has different abilities, different ranges. Is it a female or a male singer? They have very different vocal ranges. Obviously, generally, males sing in lower ranges and females sing in higher ranges. But of course, there are many exceptions, so you really need to know the person who will sing the song.

The capability of the singer is also important. Because some singers have a much wider range, and they can easily sing melodies that have huge leaps, but the same melody might be disadvantageous for other singers. If you don’t know who will be the singer, it’s better if you stay conservative with your melody – this means you shouldn’t write too many huge leaps in the melody because it’s harder to sing.

If you know the singer, you should take some of her (or his) recordings, and write down her vocal range. Or even if she doesn’t have any recordings, you can ask her which famous songs she can sing in the original key, and you just need to check the vocal range of those songs.

You should also consider writing the melody in the upper range of the singer. While it may be easy for them to sing lower, it usually sounds much better to sing the melody higher. A higher pitch always evokes higher emotions in the listener!

Also keep in mind that while you can play melodies continuously with a musical instrument, a singer needs to take a breath sometimes… So you can’t write vocal melodies that have no rests for a long time. When you write a vocal melody, you should always sing it. (You don’t have to be a professional singer in order to do that.) This way you will know if a phrase is too long, and you will also have a better picture of what phrases sound more natural for singing.

Start with a chord progression

It’s easier to write a melody when you already have a complete music arrangement, but even if you don’t have the music yet, you should have at least a chord progression. A chord progression can help you write a melody in many ways. The chord progression itself already tells a “story” without any melody. It determines the mood of the song. Is it a sad (minor) or a happy (major) chord progression? These kinds of things can tell you what kind of melody you need to write. Although, the tempo of the song also determines the mood, so keep that in mind. A faster tempo will be more energetic, a slower tempo will be less energetic.

A chord progression gives you the tonal environment for the melody. On the other hand, if you have only the melody, it can be harmonized in many different ways with very different end results. So I always start with a chord progression, and then I create a melody. And I read that many successful songwriters do this in this same order. So play the chord progression with a piano or guitar, and try to find the rhythm, the tempo, and the overall mood of the song. It will give you an idea of how the song will FEEL, and that help you create ideas for the melody.

Mind the chords (or not!)

Melody notes are often built from chord tones, so it’s always a good idea to play around with the chord tones when you create a melody. What are chord tones? For example, if there is a C major chord in the key of C major, the chord tones are: C – E – G, and non-chord tones are everything else in the key: D – F – A – B.

However, using only chord tones in the melody can sound boring and corny. In fact, great melodies have a balance of chord tones and non-chord tones. So sometimes you need to avoid chord tones to create an effective melody. But you have to know WHEN you need to avoid those notes.

If you want to learn more details about this balance, you can go through our songwriting course. I created a guide that helps you decide how you can balance chord tones and non-chord tones in your melody. This knowledge is based on the melodies of more than 2000 hit songs.

Mind the rhythm of the lyrics

Every word has a rhythm. This is the alternation of short and long syllables which have a natural rhythm. When you create a melody for your lyrics, you need to be aware of this and create a melody with a rhythm that is closest to this natural rhythm. In other words, you shouldn’t force the words to a rhythm that sounds unnatural. How can you avoid this?

Just speak the words, like how you would say them in real life, and observe the natural rhythm of the words. Remember, short and long syllables. You can write down this natural rhythm of the words if that helps.

Then you can use this rhythm to create your melodies. Keep in mind that you can start the melodies at different places of the bar – on the first beat, or on the second, third, fourth beats… or anywhere between them. In fact, you should always experiment with starting your motifs at a different part of the bars! If you always start your melody on the first beat, it will sound boring.

Fail more

Most people think that there are people who are so gifted in songwriting, that they can create great melodies on the first try. But this is far from the truth. The only difference between you and the best songwriters is that they have failed much more times than you! In other words, you need to write MORE melodies and throw away 99% of those, and only keep the best ideas. This is how all the successful songwriters are doing it. You need to create many ideas for the melody and throw away those that you don’t like. The more you try, the more likely you will find a better solution. When you hear a great song the first time, it may seem like they created the song on the first try. But you really don’t know how many hours they have worked on the song, and how many melody ideas they threw away.

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About the Author

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