I went to a Songshop recently, put on by the Songwriters Association of Canada where there were a number of songwriters baring their souls and their songs all in the hopes of improving their craft. Sometimes as an observer it is much more obvious where the problems lie within a song…but when you’re the writer you can’t see the forest for the trees (ugh! sorry, little cliché there 🙂 One of the workshop leaders talked about hearing someone, who wasn’t a songwriter by the way, say that the highest note of the song had to be in the chorus! Is that true? Of course not…but he’d obviously made that decision after hearing songs for years and years. Defining a melody and how a great one works, will NEVER be that simple!
We get caught up sometimes in finding a neat little groove and getting those lyrics perfect, or having that lead guitar pop in at just the right moment…that we often neglect what may be the one thing that we might want people to most remember about the song! Think about all of those “great” songs that you listened to growing up…how often is the lead guitar riff the only thing you remember? While a memorable guitar riff such as Eric Clapton‘s first version of “Layla” (Derek and the Dominos) can stand out from everything else…for the most part, it isn’t going to carry the whole song!
The most difficult part, I think, about writing a melody, is keeping it simple AND unique at the same time! Why is simplicity important? Because MOST listeners out there will probably only remember the song in bits and pieces after the first listen. Test this out on somebody…play them a song of yours they’ve never heard before, and then afterwards, ask them to repeat something about it. Don’t tell them you’re going to do this beforehand, that would be cheating! What do they come up with? Melody? A line? A guitar riff? What a cool test, eh?
Let’s take a look at a couple of contemporary hit songs…I’m going to focus on Pop/Rock for the time being. Joan Osborne had a hit with the song “One Of Us”. Think about the first line of the chorus…”What if God was one of us?” The first three notes are about as simple as you can get…(F#, G#, A in the actual key) same length, major scale…you could find that same set of three notes in a thousand other songs somewhere. On their own, what they do is ascend (rise) to the most central theme of the song…God. And the word “God” is the highest note (okay, maybe that non-songwriter had a point!) But the next four notes really help to reinforce that melodic hook…C# C# D E. So simple and powerful. Now look at the whole chorus…that series of 7 notes is repeated all the way through except for the last line. So the melody is not only simple, it is repeated and reinforced throughout the chorus. And of course, lyrically, it has a powerful message!
Let’s take a look at another contemporary song…”If It Makes You Happy” by Sheryl Crowe. This is another example of a very simple melodic line in the chorus, but sung with such power! I teach this song to some of my guitar students…as soon as I sing that line, they know the song! When she goes from the first D up a whole octave in the first line, there’s the whole song right there! And look at the notes, very simple and straightforward (If D it D Makes D*octave You B Hap A py B!).
Let me tell you a little secret…your listeners, unless they are musical masters or jazz enthusiasts, do not have complex listening skills! As I said earlier, they will collect bits and pieces of a song, but won’t grasp the whole thing on the first listen. So it’s important for you to get their attention with shorter, simpler lines of melody, reinforced with great lyrics of course! If you look at Sheryl Crowes’ song again…the first melodic part is repeated…so it’s broken down into four lines in the chorus:
If it makes you happy D D D* B A B *up an octave
It can’t be that bad D G G G B A G A
If it makes you happy D D D B A B
Why the hell are you so sad? G E G E G G B
And although she doesn’t do it the first time it’s sung…the chorus is repeated twice after every verse! Again, she really reinforces that musical hook. Her performance is another very important element…think about how she sings it…it’s balsy, not pretty, which is her style certainly. But it makes you want to shout it, rather than sing it!
In listening to some demos recently, another point came to mind. There’s a real need for “flow” in your melody…it has to move seamlessly and effortlessly from one line to the next. One demo especially stood out as having far too many “blank” spaces or pauses…it lost something and had little impact as a result. This does not mean that your melody shouldn’t have any pauses in it at all…you’ve gotta breathe! But if you ARE running out of breath when you sing it, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s much too full. And if it feels like it’s dragging, the opposite is probably true…you’re not doing enough!
So now it sounds like I’ve told you two contradictory things…keep the lines shorter and simpler, and make sure there’s a flow…well, they really do compliment each other. Look at the two examples I’ve shown you again…and then examine your own!