There are a lot of potential great songs out there, with beautiful lyrics, some great arrangements, and even interesting harmonic solutions. However, they often lack one crucial element: a great melody.
That's a shame because the melody is the element of our song that sticks in the head of the listener.
If you want those people to start humming your tunes while they're taking a shower, or dusting their homes, or taking the dog out for a walk, you have to write a balanced and interesting melody.
It should be balanced and quite simple otherwise, people would not be able to remember it, sing it along, or enjoy it. At the same time, it shouldn't be too repetitive or too basic otherwise, it wouldn't stand out.
As a songwriter, your goal is to get people excited about your music. Using melodies to achieve this goal is a great life skill!
Now, I did write some very bad melodies in my life. So, I've been there before.
I know how easy it is to just go with the "lazy" solution instead of working hard on a more interesting or creative motif. The opposite is also true: it is so easy to start overdoing it, finding yourself with bold tunes, that also sound pretty ugly.
The following tips come from a lot of hard work and trial-and-error. I hope you find them useful for your songwriting!
Photo by Xavier von Erlach on Unsplash
Tip #1: Add Some Rhythmic Variations
When talking about melodies, we tend to focus on the pitch rather than on the rhythm, but both of these elements are essential.
A melody is the combination of them both.
That's why altering the rhythm while maintaining the pitches where they are, can change the melody in quite a drastic way.
I learned this in a Jazz Singing class. My teacher was introducing me to improvisation and she said: "Your first attempts at improvising over a theme should be focused on the rhythm". Don't change the pitch, but try adding some triplets here and there. A bigger rest. Or try an upbeat onset when it should be on the downbeat. And so on.
To make your tune a bit more interesting without going too crazy with the intervals you use, try adding some rhythmic variations. Is there any spot where you could experiment a bit more with rhythm?
Let's make an example: Another One Bites the Dust, by Queen. That bass riff at the beginning, which is the hook of the song and the foundation for the melody in the verse, is extremely simple. It is basically the repetition of the tonic, E.
The whole section develops around three notes: E, G, and A.
What makes it so catchy and memorable is the rhythmic pattern, combined, of course, with the right drum beat.
You could also consider rhythmical changes as a strategy to add variation throughout your melody.
Maybe you could stick with simpler rhythmic forms in the first verse and then slightly change things in the second verse, for example through syncopation.
Tip #2: Find a Nice Balance Between Repetition and Variation
Songwriting is often just a matter of balancing these two elements: repetition and variation.
There is no right or wrong recipe, to be honest.
Some great songs are quite repetitive. Some other great songs have a lot of variety, instead. In both cases, the secret was finding the right spot, the right balance between new and familiar elements.
A melody can be seen as a group of consequent sections. By creating just three or four sections and combining them in the right way, you could end up with a nice, balanced melody.
Let's take an example, using a song we are all more than familiar with, Happy Birthday.
The easy yet effective melody for Happy Birthday consists of only four sections.
Sections A and A1 (when we sing the first two "Happy birthday to you") are very similar. The only difference between them lies in the last two notes: C and B first, and then D and C.
Section B ("Happy birthday, dear...") has quite a different motif, with a different rhythm (we don't have a closure with a half note, in this case) and a different scheme of intervals, too. The opening, however, is still the same, with the two repeated G notes.
Section C closes it all, with a different opening and the resolution over the tonic, which is note C.
In any contemporary popular song, we also have repeated elements that are balanced out by new elements.
If you are struggling to get melodic ideas for your songs, start by repeating the little bits you already have. Then play around with them, as in Happy Birthday. Go a whole step up in a certain spot. Try with an arpeggio instead of a scale. Get creative!
Tip #3: Play With Dynamics
In classical music, composers fix dynamics down on paper. Certain notes are designed to be executed at a very loud volume and some others, instead, very softly. You can find these indications right on the staff.
In popular music, we are usually not that strict and precise, but it still makes sense to consider dynamics when writing a melody.
When we have wider intervals in our melody or when we plan a richer arrangement in specific sections of our songs, we'll have more energy there. Or, in other words, a stronger dynamic.
With smaller intervals or quieter song sections, we'll have less energy.
Playing with dynamics, alternating stronger and weaker sections, is a great way to add variety to your song. It is also a very important aspect to consider when laying down your structure. We'll talk about this in the next tip.
Tip #4: Consider Structure
Your melody should ideally guide your listener throughout a journey.
You start somewhere, you have a peek around, you take a certain path, you start climbing the mountain. When you get to the top, you enjoy the fresh air for a bit, and then you slowly come back down and bring everyone home.
Sure, you could also start at the top of the mountain. Or you could start at the middle of the path. It doesn't matter. What matters is that your song has a certain structure, with nicely planned dynamics, some movement, and some resting spots.
For example, we could start from the verse.
We have an easy peasy melody going on right here. Not too crazy. Actually, quite plain and predictable. We repeat it once more, but this time we slightly change the ending.
This little change serves as a step towards our bridge, which is quite different.
If the verse was a bit static, in the bridge we finally get going. We are walking towards the top of our mountain. And the top, of course, is reached during the chorus. That's where everything is louder, more exciting, more memorable, catchier. Then we could go back to the verse, but maybe this time our melody is an octave higher. This is a great and simple solution to add even more variety to our melody.
After this verse, we decide it's time to change our path, so we get to our middle eight, a new section.
The middle eight could be considered as a sort of alter ego of our verse. Its evil twin. Or its best friend. This choice is really up to you.
After this encounter with our evil twin, anyhow, we want to go back home. So we take our old path and go back to our verse. After all that walking we need a good resting spot.
Great composers always pay a lot of attention to the structure of a song. Without that, we wouldn't have much going on. No great movement. No great journey. No great walk towards the peak of the mountain.
If you feel your melodies are not that interesting, try adding another section, such as an additional verse, but, this time, with a little change. Maybe you could go an octave above or do a modulation.
Or try taking something out. Sometimes we try too hard. We keep adding verses, sections, new elements when all we need is just to make things a bit simpler.
Once again, this choice depends on you. Choose wisely!
Tip #5: Write For Yourself
I know this sounds cheesy, but you won't get better at writing melodies if you're too focused on pleasing the listener.
You are the composer but, spoiler alert, you are also a listener, so you know what you love, what you hate, what moves you, what makes you dance, and so on.
Trust your guts. Write the melodies that move you or get you excited. Don't think about impressing another random person.
If you are authentic, people will feel it and get excited about your music too.
Alright guys, I hope you found these five tips to write better melodies useful!
Happy songwriting...and rock on! Ciao!