You’re trying to write a new song, but find yourself playing the same old chords and phrases again. You’re having trouble breaking out of your musical box, stuck only with the few riffs and progressions that are baked into your muscle memory. It happens to all of us, and it can be very frustrating.
In this article I will discuss how we can break out of our musical boxes and write better songs by understanding and focusing on creating powerful melody lines. We’ll break our journey into three parts:
You can also download the Songwriting Cheat Sheet I made for you.
There are three basic elements that make up a song.
Melody - A succession of single notes that is uniquely identifiable - the “tune”
Harmony - Groups of notes played simultaneously - chords and chord progressions
Rhythm - The timing of the song, notes, and chords (beat, meter, tempo, syncopation, etc) - the groove
The problem we are experiencing when we find ourselves playing the same old chords again is that we don’t have a good balance between these three elements. Mainly, we’ve been putting too much energy into coming up with a cool chord progression, and haven’t been putting enough effort into writing great melodies.
Melodies Are Important
Songs are stories. Chords provide the story's setting and tone, and the rhythm is the pace and timing of the story, but it's the melodies that are the actual characters and events. Listening to a song without a well developed melody is the equivalent of listening to a story with poorly developed characters who have nothing memorable or interesting to say and to whom nothing memorable or interesting happens. The more interesting and relatable a story’s characters and events are, the more engaged the listener will be. The more interesting and relatable a song's melodies are... OK you get the point.
The truth is, most popular songs only use a handful of chord progressions, so they are differentiated primarily by their melodies. It’s not that chord progressions don’t matter, it’s just that melody matters so much more. When you get a song stuck in your head, it’s not the chord progressions you’ll be humming, it’s the melody. This is why they are the key to writing better, more interesting songs.
It’s not that chord progressions don’t matter, it’s just that melody matters so much more.
Fundamentals of Melody
Pitch and Duration
Melodies are monophonic, meaning they play only one note or pitch at a time (as opposed to harmony which is polyphonic, or multiple notes at one time). Melodies have two main components, pitch and duration - which note, and how long does it last? We create melody by arranging pitches of varying durations into some sequence.
Tension and Release
The root, or tonic note of our song's tonal center can be considered “home” base. We can build tension, creating anticipation and excitement for the listener, by leaving home base. We can provide the listener with a sense of satisfaction and a feeling of relief when we return to home base. It is this cycle of tension and release that makes a melody interesting.
In western music, there are typically seven notes in any given scale, the first note being the tonic. This means that the farthest away from “home base” we can ever get is 5 notes away. Knowing this helps us to make more intentional decisions about which notes to play as we take the listener to and from home, and create for them the sense of tension and release that will ultimately determine how interesting our melody is.
Whether your melody will be a great testament to your songwriting capabilities or the suckiest piece of musical garbage of all time will ultimately be a subjective matter. However, there are a few guidelines we can follow to help ensure our melodies fall in the former camp. Whether you are writing melody for the guitar, piano, voice, or any other instrument, these principles remain the same.
Melody Writing Guidelines
1. Include a Mixture of Stepwise and Skipwise Motion
Stepwise motion is when you move up or down from one note in the scale to the next without skipping over any notes. Melodies that use a lot of stepwise motion might be more memorable, and are easier for listeners to hum along to.
Skipwise motion is when you skip over notes as you move from one to another within the scale. Melodies that include a lot of skipwise motion provide more interest, but can be harder to follow along with.
2. Add Rhythmic Variety
A great melody usually has a variety of short and long notes. Sometimes it helps to focus on the space between notes. It is common for verse melody notes to have shorter durations than chorus melody notes. Experiment with starting your melodies on beats other than 1. You can also accent certain notes and create dynamic changes to generate more excitement. Finally, consider using a variety of articulations (legato, staccato, muting/dampening, and fermata)
3. Limit the Total Range of Pitches Used
Remember, generally there are only seven notes to choose from in a given scale. All seven of those notes exist within a single octave. Focusing your melody writing within or near one octave will help you build more intentional melodies and will also be easier to sing.
4. Use Chord Tones and Scale Notes
Notes that sound particularly pleasing when played over any given chord are called chord tones. They are literally just the notes of the chord - but being aware of them can help inform your decisions about which notes to go to next in your melody. For example, a Gmaj7 chord has the notes G-B-D-F# in it. Using any of these notes in the melody while the Gmaj7 chord is being played by a rhythm instrument will guarantee a pleasing sound. Also consider limiting yourself to mostly the notes of one scale. This will help create a cohesive sound, and make it more dramatic when you hit a note outside the scale.
5. Use Call And Response
Melodies are all about the characters of your song’s story. What happens to them, what they say, and what they feel. Often, melodies come in packets of two phrases: phrase one tells us something new or asks a question, and phrase two responds to phrase one. Writing a dialogue with melodies can create a very engaging experience for the listener.
6. Write Ascending and Descending Melodies
Using a variety of both ascending and descending phrases will help your melody sound more dramatic.
This brings us to melodic contour.
Using Melodic Shapes (Melodic Contour)
If you’ve ever seen musical notation, whether it was sheet music, a MIDI piano roll, or guitar tablature, then you are already familiar with the shapes of melodies. These shapes, commonly called contours, are created as notes move up or down in pitch over time. You can take any piece of musical notation and simply play connect the dots with the notes to reveal it's shape.
Stories and events have similar shapes. Since each melody is like a mini-story or event that tells us what the “character” is experiencing, we can borrow the shapes of stories, and apply them to our melody writing. The shape of a story is created as good and bad things happen over time.
The shapes of statements will be specific to each individual language or even accent, because they have to do with the way we talk - the inflection points of our speech. For example in English, we add an upwards inflection in our tonality at the end of a question. Ask yourself aloud, do you understand melodic contour? Notice the way your voice changes up or down in pitch as you ask the question. Different statements, questions, and exclamations have different shapes, all of which can be applied to melodic contour to help us better convey our message to the listener.
Practicing Melody Writing
Some people begin their songwriting with the melody, but songwriting can also start with a chord progression or rhythmic idea. In many cases, it’s actually easier to focus on writing a melody if we already have a chord progression to play over. We don’t even need to worry too much about which chords we use, since as we learned above, the chord progression matters much less than the melody. A couple different ways we can approach melody writing include:
Focus on the notes in one particular scale - Each scale has a certain feeling or emotional quality to it. Using primarily those notes within one given scale is a good way to establish a strong and clear theme.
Jam with other musicians - have the band play a chord progression while you improvise different melodic ideas over it.
Use A Loop Station - loop a chord or chord progression and focus on writing a melody line over it.
Use A Drum Machine - a drum machine will provide only the rhythm element, leaving you free to try melodies in any key or scale.
A melody can originate from a musical idea that is already in your head, the shape of a story or statement you want to convey, or it can originate from improvisation. When practicing melody writing with improvisation, it is helpful to distinguish a solo from a melody. While solo’s do contain melodies, melodies are typically more specific musical phrases that contain the songs main thematic ideas.
Expanding and Reinforcing Melodies
Writing a great melody is arguably the most important part of writing a great song. But we shouldn't stop after writing just one melody. Here are a few things you can do to expand on your melodies to bring even more character and interest to your songs.
Make a slight variation in your melody when it repeats, such as from verse 1 to verse 2, or from an initial chorus to a final chorus
Add a harmony line to your melody. Different intervals will produce different textures.
Thirds can add a feeling of beauty and wonder
Octaves can create a sense of intimacy or seriousness
Fifths will add weight to melody lines
Write Counterpoint Melodies
Counterpoint is the combination of two or more melodies such that their individual notes form harmonies, but they differ in rhythm and melodic contour. Counterpoint can add even more texture and interest to your song. This technique can create a wonderful sense of coming together and separating again between ideas, characters, or events. They are great to use in final choruses and at times when we want the song to have more complexity.
There are three basic elements of a song: melody, harmony, and rhythm. Of them, melody is the most important. Melodies are successions of single notes that are unique and recognizable. They are created by arranging notes with changes in pitch and duration into a melodic contour, and are made more interesting by using tension and release to take the listener away from home and back again.
When writing melodies, we should consider stepwise and skipwise motion, rhythmic variety, total range of notes used, chord tones and scale notes, call and response, and ascending and descending phrases. We can use melodic contours to further sculpt our melody into the the story or message of our song. It is helpful to practice melody writing with a group, loop station, or drum machine.
Finally, we can expand and reinforce our melodies by varying them slightly from part to part, adding harmony lines, or writing counterpoints to accompany them.
It is my goal to help you create the best sounding music possible. I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments please drop me a line! I’m even happy to listen to your melody lines and provide some feedback.
Also, don’t forget to download the Songwriting Cheat Sheet!