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Have you ever had a moment listening to the radio and realize how insanely simple and repetitive most hit songs are? You think to yourself, “I could write that!”, but very few of us actually do. Some of the world’s most beloved songs and memorable melodies are also some of the simplest. In this piece we’ll look at techniques for taking a single melodic idea and developing it into an entire song section, keeping things nice and simple.
In order to develop an idea we need to have an idea, and ideally a good one. Great melodies are usually the ones that come to you at inconvenient times and end up as voice memos on your phone. Other times songs happen to us and we just let them flow without much thought as to how they’re structured.
Those initial moments where a song starts to flow or a melody lands, that’s the moment of inspiration we’re looking for. Think of these melodies as little doorways, each providing a way into a song and the materials needed to begin building it.
From there, it’s our job as songwriters to make sure we don’t let things become overly complex without nice contrast, and stick to writing that simple song which seems so effortless upon listening.
Simple songs tend to have one motif per section—when you look closely, each melody within the section is derivative of, or built upon, a single original motif. What’s a motif?
A motif is “a short succession of notes producing a single impression; a brief melodic or rhythmic formula out of which longer passages are developed.” To put it simply, it’s the smallest identifiable piece of musical information in a section.
A few classic examples of small identifiable motifs which have been developed into memorable pieces of music are the first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony and Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
For Beethoven, it’s that classic line “du du du DUM!”. You know the one I’m talking about. The one that everyone and their mama has sampled since the dawn of sampling. Every single line and melody that the entire symphony plays in that first section is a variation of that same, amazing rhythmic melodic motif.
For Menken and Ashman it’s a similar situation, except they decided to use a single motif to develop the entire song, as opposed to just a certain section. Sing it to yourself,
“Tale as old as time... true as it can be... barely even friends… then somebody bends… unexpectedly”
It’s the exact same rhythmic pattern with five syllables, for the entirety of the whole song. You heard me right, the entire song. Go ahead and sing the rest to yourself, or better yet, sing along with Celine!
Here are some of the tried and true examples of developmental techniques that have lasted through decades of popular music.
Repeat the same motif again and again and again. This is hard to pull off for most people because you need a really strong motif to stand up against the redundancy of repetition. A great example of exact repetition is every single section of “Single Ladies” by Beyonce. Each section has one motif which repeats itself over and over until the next section. Another example is “Closing Time” by Semisonic.
Take the same motif and then transpose it up or down. An example of sequencing is the verse of “Toxic” by Britney Spears. The first motif gets repeated, “Baby can’t you see I’m calling... a guy like you should wear a warning” and then for the third time it’s sequenced down a whole step, “It’s dangerous, I’m falling.” A more classic example is Billy Joel’s, “She’s Always a Woman to Me” which is almost entirely built upon sequencing.
You can expand or contract your motifs by adding more sonic information on to the end of them or stopping them before they finish. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police is easy example to grasp just from the lyrical structure, which adds length upon each repetition of the motif, “don’t stand, don’t stand so, don’t stand so close to me.”
The previous example of “Beauty and the Beast” is a great example of keeping the rhythmic structure of a motif in place but playing with pitch to carry the melody forward. You’ll often see a writer take the same notes and then accelerate or decelerate things rhythmically to create forward momentum or a slowing down effect. Mariah Carey’s song “Hero” has an opening line in the chorus which is, “then a heroa comes along” and the final time she sings it at half the speed which slows things down and highlights the lyric, “because a hero lies in you”.
There are other techniques such as retrograde and mirroring/inversion, which are used less frequently. All of the techniques listed here exist under other names depending on who you ask, but the concepts themselves remain intact across terminology.
After reading this you might be wondering if people really write like this. The answer is yes and no. Writers who want to make a living writing typically do take a step back and assess how their melodies connect and support each other, but that initial doorway into the song tends to be a creative process as opposed to an analytical one. As you get better at understanding the connective tissue which are your melodies, the easier it becomes to write melodies that inherently have these motivic connections without having to go back and massage things into place afterwards.
It might feel like a foriegn concept at first, but the more you work on your melody writing and see things in context, the more it becomes second nature and you don’t have to think about it as you’re writing. So although these developmental techniques might seem clinical in comparison to the emotions you’re trying to communicate to your listener, this is where the craft of songwriting meets your moments of inspiration.
A good exercise would be to take one of those voice memos off your phone and turn it into an entire song section, or if you’re feeling really fancy, an entire song. Keep it simple and write that song you hear on the radio that seems so simple anyone could have written it.