There is a lot of music out there that is not as melody-based, one extreme being rap, where elements such as rhythm, lyrics and production are relied upon to attract the listener. But in my case, I’ve always been attracted to a song with a powerful melody. Classical music was always playing in the house when I was growing up, and I believe that exposure to this kind of music gave me an ear and a preference for melodic songs.
So what makes a great melody? I think it’s a relative thing, but for me a great melody is either one that can exist beautifully without any accompaniment, or dances in a unique way over top of a great chord progression.
Although it’s difficult to actually teach how to write a great melody, there are some things you can keep in mind in order to improve them.
One very common problem I find with melodies is that they stay very close to the “root” note of the chord. Let’s take a little theory lesson…if you’ve already studied theory, you don’t need this next section…but read through it anyway!
Chords are made up of three or more notes…I won’t go into much depth here, but let’s take a look at the “C” chord as an example:
A major “C” chord has three notes…C (called the ‘root’), E (called the ’3rd’ because it’s three notes up from ‘C’ in the C major scale), and G (called the ’5th’ because it’s five notes up from ‘C’). So we have three notes…C (root), E (3rd), G (5th). Here’s a simple graphic:
Underneath are the notes of each string (the 6th or E string is not played, hence the “x”). You’ll notice that the only notes contained in the chord of C are as I described above…C, E, G.
Play each of those strings alone and hum each note as you pluck it..you’ll find that you are probably “attracted” to one of those notes more than the others…the root note of “C” may be the one that draws your ear. Chances are that you will almost unconsciously create your melody with that note in it more than any others. If your melodies feel hum-drum, this may be the reason. Now try strumming it and at the same time focus on singing notes that are not within that chord. Play with it a bit, until you get a sense of just how interesting your melody can get…every time you write your melodies, no matter if you write lyrics first or whether you already have the chord progressions, just being conscious of not repeating the same note too often can help your writing.
Another common problem I hear in melodies is that they move all over the place, almost the opposite to the problem above. This is where simplicity is the order of the day. Here is an exercise that might help you overcome the temptation to write complicated melodies…try coming up with a chord progression of three or four chords and then continue playing those three or four chords in repetition. As an example, try playing D, Bm, A, and G. Over top of that progression, sing one note that sounds like it fits pretty much all of those chords. Just one note. You can hum it continuously, or you can break it up by humming it in a rhythmic fashion, but only one note. Notice how the chord changes actually change the feeling of that note…it’s a subtle thing but very effective.
Very often, the rhythm of the melody is as important as the notes in it. As a guitar teacher, I’ve noticed that one of the hardest things for some of my students to do is to maintain a rhythm on the guitar while singing a melody that is syncopated. Syncopation is a rhythm that exists just before or just after the meter count. The dictionary defines syncopate as: “…change a regular rhythm by beginning a note on an unaccented beat and holding it into an accented one or beginning it midway through a beat and continuing it midway into the next one.” Phew! Does this feel like math? Rarely are melodies sung continuously on the beat…songs would sound awfully funny if every note was sung on the beat. As an example of syncopation, take for example, Paul Simon‘s song “Me & Julio”. I’ve placed the words underneath the meter of the music to show you how it would look:
Notice how many of the words fall in between the beats. The word ‘Me’, ‘school’ and ‘yard’ are the only words that actually fall on the beat, on one of the numbers. Melodies are usually a combination of both. How do your melodies measure up? Get a metronome and just sing one of your melodies over top of it…notice where you place the notes. Do they sit too much on the beat, or do they always fall in between?
Melody and rhythm, are the simplest elements when it comes to writing a song, but a song is only as strong as it’s weakest part. Of course, listening to strong melody-based music, anything written by the Beatles, for example, will give you a new respect for the magic of melody.