There are many parts to writing a song. There has to be a good song idea that people will be interested in. You also have to focus on crafting great lyrics, using the appropriate song structure, coming up with a logical chord progression, and crafting an awesome chorus. Within all that, finding a great melody to tie them all together is also a necessity.
Good melodies tend to have rather simple arrangements, but writing one is often far from easy. However, like anything else, consistent practice can help make it easier for you to create catchy melodies when you want to. It also helps to know what goes into writing memorable melodies. But first, let’s clear up what a melody really is.
What is a melody?
In songwriting, a melody is a sequential arrangement of notes that constitute a single piece of music, whether vocally or instrumentally. Melodies are made up of the note’s pitch (which is how high or low a particular sound is) and duration (the length of the note). The melody is really what gives aural identity to a song, and without it, your song simply won’t be memorable.
Melodies can be short, standalone musical phrases, combining a few simple notes. This is usually the case with most mainstream genres, especially pop, R&B, and Rock. However, Jazz, progressive rock, and orchestral arrangements such as opera performances may have more complex melodies.
It is important not to confuse melodies with harmonies or song hooks. A vocal performance of the “Happy Birthday” song will likely be just its melody. However, accompanying the performance with an instrument or additional voices creates harmony. The harmony, therefore, is how all the various notes sound together in combination with the melody.
On the other hand, a hook tends to be a word, phrase, expression, or arrangement that gets stuck in a listener’s head, so it is safe to say a hook is usually a melody. But a melody is not always a hook. That’s because melodies are also used in a song’s verses, while hooks tend to be choruses or transitional notes (an opening refrain or persistent sound used throughout a song, for example). With that said, they all tend to work together, with the melody being the underlining arrangement that determines how well the listener responds to the harmony, hook, etc. of a song.
Different types of melodies
There are two main types of melodies: 1. Vocal melody: These are commonly applied in popular music styles, which typically involve vocal performances. This makes sense because listeners tend to pay more attention to the vocal arrangement and actual words of the song than the underlying instrumentation. Many of your favorite pop hits have standout vocal melodies for that precise reason. 2. Instrumental melody: Melodies consisting of instrumental notes such as a guitar riff or a string solo are common examples of an instrumental melody. Musical arrangements and pre-recorded pieces accompanying a vocal are also instrumental melodies. You can find instrumental melodies in many song intros or as interludes – transitioning to a song bridge, for example.
How to write a song melody
Now that you know how to identify different song melodies, it’s time for what you are here for – how to write one.
- Generate a melody from a chord progression
Most common melodies are arrived at by vocalizing or playing with notes over the chord changes. At first, you may find your melody hard to take shape. It may also sound like another song you have heard before, especially if a particular tune was playing in your head before. However, if you keep at it and try varying the spaces between the notes and taking time to shape them, you will soon find you are able to come up with something unique.
A neat trick to try, especially when creating a vocal melody, is to start out with indistinct throat sounds or even gibberish. For example, you can start out with a few “la, la, la’s” “oh, oh, oh’s” or even “dum dee dums,” varying the pattern or length of the notes each time. Before long, you will find you are able to fit in your own words, phrases, and sounds to match with the theme and message of your song. The opening melody of Jordin Spark’s “One Step At A Time” is a great example of how this works.
- Pattern your notes in a stepwise fashion
Think of how you walk along a pathway or climb a stairwell; each step you take develops a particular rhythm depending on the layout of the ground surface. Placing your notes in step sequence one after the other is a common way to start developing a melody. What you can do to make it more interesting is to vary the length of each step above or below, whether following a full step with a half-step or vice versa. You can further diversify your melody by adding extended steps or leaps between each stepwise section. If the song is a slow beat, you can turn around this process, i.e. using longer-paced notes, then short leaps between each section.
- Work towards creating the hook
Since a hook is often a melody, you can simultaneously create the latter by simply working towards the former. Creating a melody this way may be easier for some songwriters who are able to come up with a hook based on the song idea or theme or by simply humming over a beat.
- Shape your melody into the harmony
While not always possible, it may be easier to frame your melody into the context of the overall harmony development of the song. As you fuse the different instruments and vocal arrangements, the way they blend with each chord change can lead to you being clearer on how you want the melody to sound and how to make it stand out in the areas of the song where it most matters.
- Place emphasis on a rhythm pattern
If you already have a basic melody but it sounds too simple, you can make it more interesting by playing around with the rhythm pattern. You may, for example, move a note from where it is expected within the rhythm, placing it just before or just after a particular beat. Doubling up a beat in a rhythm section or playing around with the time signatures can also lead to dramatic results when trying to create your melody. Usually, this way of creating a melody requires some amount of experimentation, so you have to be willing to try different things with the beat and/or vocals before finding a melody that jumps out at you.
- Take cues from popular songs
Whether you are into pop, rock, jazz, or hip-hop, you will find that most melodies tend to have a lot in common, regardless of genre. With that said, you can get an idea for a melody by simply listening to popular songs that you like and using them to spark your own ideas. A two-part melody song such as Ed Sheeran's "Shape Of You," for example, can be good inspiration. Listen to see how they use chord progressions, rhythmic patterns, and beat placements to create their own melodies. Once you are able to pinpoint the layout of the melody in an existing song, you can use it as a foundation to craft your own, based on your song structure, theme, and message.
- Get inspiration from the song’s emotional theme
Is your song meant to sound lively, sad, angry, lonely, or mellow? Whatever the case, trying to emulate that emotion can help you with crafting the melody that suits your song. A lively guitar riff, for example, can form the basis of an upbeat melody, while a haunting croon can lay the foundation of a melody that is on the melancholic side of the musical spectrum.
Creating catchy melodies can come naturally, but more often than not, it will require you to put in some work. Trying one or more of the tips above can put you on the right path to crafting something memorable.