Besides harmonies, song structure, the arrangement and of course the lyrics, the melody is one of the most important, if not the most important factor of a good song. In this article Allihoopa we will show you basic characteristics of melodies. Afterwards, we will discuss the methods we can use to find good melodies for our songs.
Good and bad melody
What distinguishes a good melody from a bad one? In pop music, this is relatively easy. A good melody is:
- Easily memorable,
- can be sung along easily even by musical laymen and
- provides a song with that certain something, which leads to high sales or listener numbers.
But what distinguishes melodies from each other? A melody as a sequence of tones is distinguished by the following factors.
First, we have the pitch and the intervals. Does the melody play more in the upper spectrum or more in the lower spectrum of a scale? What are the height differences between the individual tones (the intervals)? Do the notes fit the chords or do they sound dissonant in this context?
The second factor is repetition. Once you pay attention to this, you will quickly notice that melodies actually consist of short phrases that repeat themselves – often slightly altered – several times.
The third factor is therefore variation. While in classical music there is much more extensive and extensive variation on the melody, in pop music it is kept within limits. But still, the variation is of immense importance, in the formation of the melody.
The fourth factor is the rhythm, groove and syncopation.
The elements of a good melody
There are only twelve chromatic tones, and in scales there are often only seven different tones. The use of these tones is again limited by the underlying harmonies. This results in a small number of tones, which are opposed to an enormous number of songs. Nevertheless, most melody lines in songs sound very different from each other. This has not least to do with the rhythm and the individual syncopation of the melody lines.
Melodies often follow a wave-like motion. They rise, they stay briefly in the same place but not on the same note, and then they descend again (or vice versa). Take the song: “Alle Meine Entchen” and you already have a good example of such a wave movement. In principle, this works with any song. You start at one note, then something happens between this note and a higher note or a lower note and in the end you come back to the original note (or at least in the area of it).
A melody experiment
Now listen at this point to an example of a melody in which many things are wrong: it has no repetition, that is, something new is happening all the time. You will notice that this melody sounds rather confusing and is certainly not suitable for a successful pop song.
Now a melody that has repetition, but no variation. It doesn’t sound good either, but rather boring to annoying.
For comparison now this melody. Here we see clearly the wave motion and that it consists of twice the same phrase, which varies a little in pitch. This melody is much more suitable for a successful pop song.
Melodies in instruments
Remember that in good songs, the melody can be found not only in the vocals, but very often the instruments also play well-remembered melody lines. A distinctive guitar riff is in many very successful songs next to the vocals, elementary part of the hookline.
Here is a small list:
- Billie Jean (distinctive bass line)
- YOUTUBE: Listen to Billie Jean on YouTube
- SPOTIFY: Listen to Billie Jean on Spotify
- APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Billie Jean on Apple Music
- Smoke on the Water (distinctive guitar riff)
- YOUTUBE: Listen to Smoke on the Water on YouTube
- SPOTIFY: Listen to Smoke on the Water on Spotify
- APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Smoke on the Water on Apple Music
- Money (distinctive drum pattern in unusual 7/4)
- YOUTUBE: Money on YouTube
- SPOTIFY: Money on Spotify
- APPLE MUSIC: Money on Apple Music
The intuitive approach to finding a melody differs from the theoretical approach discussed later in that it relies on intuition. So it’s less about sitting down on your seat of the pants and designing the melody for a song on the drawing board, so to speak, and more about extracting a good melody from the “ether of creativity.” Intuition plays a big role in music. On the one hand, one can argue that melodies that pop into our heads out of nowhere come from a “higher power,” the “universe,” or the intangible “collective consciousness of humanity.”
On the other hand, it can also be argued that melodies that emerge in this way are created based on our previous listening experiences or out of sheer coincidence. Whatever it is, it works. After all, the vast majority of melodies emerge via the intuitive approach. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t rework melodies that have been created intuitively on the drawing board – sitting on the seat of your pants after all – within the framework of all theoretical knowledge.
A popular option is to simply plug a microphone into the player for 20-30 minutes and record any melodies. The goal is not to find the perfect melody, but to record as many melodies as possible. It is a kind of musical brainstorming. This can be done either without any rhythmic or harmonic accompaniment or – if available – over a repetitive instrumental of the song or parts of it. If a song lyric already exists, it can be used. If there are no lyrics yet, you can either use a “fantasy language” or simply use syllables or short sounds (like Ah, Oh, Dah or Duh) as provisional song lyrics.
After the recording is successfully completed, take a break after about another 30-60 minutes -or maybe even the next day- the second step is to pick out the good, better and best melodies. To do this, listen to your 20-30 minute recording several times and note the places where particularly good melody fragments appear. Admittedly, this is a bit of work, but in most cases it will pay off. Many good songs have been written this way- but few are known to have been written this way. It can be proven that the comeback song of the band “Take That” from 2010 “The Flood” was provided with its melody in this way.
Many songwriters probably know this phenomenon: you’re sitting in the subway, in the park, at the dinner table, on the toilet; or you’re lying in bed and about to fall asleep – and bang, there it is- the perfect melody. Wherever these intuitive flashes of inspiration come from, as a serious songwriter you have to preserve them.
Because the probability is small that one still remembers the melody hours later. Of course, in the sense of the test method discussed later, this could be understood as a tried and tested method of choice. Freely after the slogan: If I do not remember this melody later, it cannot have been so good”. However, it is obvious to record the melody anyway. Nowadays, you don’t even need to lug around a voice recorder, but if you have one, you can sing it directly onto your cell phone or smartphone.
The great thing about this method is also that you can target inspirational places. So you might find it easier to find a romantic melody while sitting in a forest clearing under a full moon. And perhaps easier to find a powerful, adrenaline-filled melody while leaning into a curve on a roller coaster.
So the next time you feel the random hint of a melody, be quick to record the flash of inspiration to analyze it again later at your leisure to see if you might not have accidentally tracked down the next big hit.
Great and very successful songwriters are often mentioned at the end of their career with their most successful songs. However, if you dive deeper into the matter, you realize how many songs have actually been released by these well-known songwriters. For example, if a songwriter has written four or five big hits, he or she has certainly published 200 to 400 songs in most cases. And those are just the ones that actually made it to publication. So imagine how many of the songs that songwriter has written have never been released. There must be a lot of them.
Now it’s clear that with very successful songwriters we’re also talking about careers that have often lasted 10, 20 or even 30 years. That adds up to quite a bit. Still, you can see how strong the urge to – and desire for – songwriting was. So if you want to be serious about songwriting yourself, you should write songs every day. Not every one of them will be a hit. In fact, most of them will not become hits.
Every song improves your skills
Many of them you will probably want to put in mothballs after some time. But every song you write improves your skills. Every song you write gives you experience, knowledge, and the chance to be a big hit. You also give yourself an important sign: when you write every day, you show yourself how serious you are. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you have to write a complete song every day. If you can do that, all the better. If not, it’s enough if you work on one of your songs every day. Some people say that you need to have written at least 200 songs before you can master the craft of songwriting. There might be something to that. So invest a little time every day in this beautiful activity.
Don’t sit at the instrument
While it might help some people to sit at their instrument and play a melody, on the other hand, you have to keep in mind that those who will end up listening to the song, liking it, and possibly humming or singing along, are probably not sitting at an instrument. So ideally, you find a melody while you’re singing it. This can be done in your head, of course. But having your hands free and not sitting at your usual instrument, playing the same chords over and over again, or composing melodies that are easy to play but possibly difficult to sing, can be a whole new and successful impetus.
Let the subconscious work
Michael Jackson once said in an interview that the artist often gets in the way of the songs. He went on to say that for the hit song “Billie Jean,” he merely voiced that he needed a good hook for the bass; and a few days later, inspiration came “from above.”
Don’t write the music, let the music write itself.(Michael Jackson)
This principle of saying or wishing something and then forgetting it and just letting the subconscious do the work is known under many different terms. Books like: “The Secret” or “Wishing the Universe” propagate exactly the same method. Perhaps you will now object that this seems a bit mystical when it comes to songwriting. Of course you are right.
Whether it is really the influence of a higher power or a “universal law of attraction” cannot be determined. But many people swear by its effectiveness. It may well be that this approach actually causes a different focus in the subconscious. Example: if you are thinking of buying a certain car, you will usually notice this car much more often on the roads.
Focus on good tunes
This is because the brain has to constantly evaluate all the sensory impressions that take place around us in terms of their importance to us. A fast approaching car or a saber-toothed tiger suddenly jumping out of a bush mean danger to our lives, which is why we notice such things even out of the corner of our eyes. If we give our brain to understand that a thing has special importance for us, then our brain will perceive such occurrences strengthened. This can also be the case with a good melody.
Admittedly, we are here on a hint strongly based on intuition, which of course everyone may judge for himself according to its effectiveness. But if you feel like it, you can open yourself to it and try it out. Because trying costs nothing. So say what you want – something like: “I want a hit melody for my chorus and trust that I’ll get it” and then don’t worry about it. However, pay attention when melodies pop into your head and record them on your smartphone if necessary, as discussed earlier.
Speech rhythm and pitch
At first glance, this may seem a bit unusual – but the way we speak also has a speech rhythm and “melody” all its own. Another approach is therefore to take a phrase from a well-known speech and build a melody on it.
So if we take the famous “One small step for man” here and make a melody out of it, we get something along the lines of:
Of course, it may be that you had a completely different melody in mind. If that was the case: All the better. After all, it shows how individual the results are that can be achieved with this method.
Besides the intuitive approach, there is also the theoretical approach to finding a melody. Here it is really about creating and/or working on the melody in a very specific and planned way. And this is what we are going to take a closer look at here: How do I find a good melody for my songs?
Of course, it makes sense to choose a combination of the two approaches and to improve intuitively created melodies using the methods from the theoretical approaches. Conversely, you can of course also modify melodies that have been created using the theoretical approach by means of intuitive approaches. The theoretical approach is also discussed on Allihoopa.
There are many methods to arrive at a good melody via intuitiveness. This is an easy way to suck some creativity out of the “ether”. We have become acquainted with most of them. But of course every person is different and it can be that you have a completely own method that helps you find melodies (for example listening to birds and deriving a melody from it, …). Just use the method that suits you the most.