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The importance of melody can’t be understated. Melodies are the part of music that we carry with us, what we use to craft traditions and beckon joy. Without melodies, we wouldn’t have many folk stories passed on through song, or national anthems that define cultures. Music simply wouldn’t speak without it.
And yet, it’s what many musicians struggle with the most. A bad melody can destroy a song, and even worse, a mediocre melody can get forgotten forever. So where do you begin with such a principal aspect of songwriting?
A great melody should be memorable, engaging, and lift your ear above the music. Listen to some of the most iconic melodies of all time—John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”—and you’ll find that each melody shares four things in common. With the help of a guided example, let’s break down how to write a melody for your chord progression.
A great place to begin learning how to write a melody is the pentatonic scale. Found in nearly every style of music, the pentatonic scale is a scale constructed from five of the seven notes in a major/minor scale. It summarizes the scale succinctly without subtracting too much color and makes whittling down your note options much easier.
The strong points in the pentatonic scale are the tonic, third, and fifth. These make excellent starting points for melodies because of their relationship to the chord they represent. Songs like “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Sweet Child of Mine” primarily use the tonic, third, and fifth in their choruses.
Let’s build a melody from the two bar repeating chord progression below in the key of G minor. The chords are G minor / Bb major / Eb major / C minor. The pentatonic scale that we’ll base our melody on is G (tonic), Bb (minor third), C (fourth), D (fifth), and F (minor seventh). The following examples were all recorded using Spire Studio.
Repetition in melody is essential. A strong repeating rhythm in your melody gives it power and is often what people will recall first when trying to remember a melody that’s escaped their brain. When writing your melody, it’s important to add in one or two rhythmic phrases that reoccur and emphasize the underlying rhythms in the song.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an excellent example of repeating rhythms in melody. Every verse including the guitar solo uses the same melodic rhythm. The chorus melody is built entirely of a repeating cadence of two eighth notes and two dotted quarter notes.
Referencing our melody, let’s use a few simple rhythmic cadences to tie into each other. We’ll also use the fifth and minor third of the minor pentatonic scale as anchors for our melody. One easy way to employ repeating rhythm is to use the same rhythmic phrase every time the progression starts over.
While repetition and note choice are important for memory, when learning how to write a melody, a strong direction is what gives a melody its purpose. To better understand this idea, it’s important to understand melodic contour; melodic contour is the shape of the melody, or the movement between its notes. By shaping your melody a certain way, it leads the listener’s ear and mind in a certain direction.
A strong melodic direction pushes the song into new sections, and can also give context to lyrics. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” shows the power of strong direction—the melody notes escalate on the chorus’s major chord and de-escalate on the minor chord, implying a shift in the feeling behind the lyric.
Listening to the previous example, you’ll notice the melody descends over three chords, and pushes the fourth chord back to the beginning with a new, higher pitched melodic phrase. On the second time through the chord progression, the slight note variation at the end of the fifth measure grabs the ears and keeps your attention while maintaining the same rhythm as measure one.
While flair isn’t the most important part of a melody, it can be what separates your melody from the rest of the pack. By adding in passing tones and tensions to a pentatonic scale (and performed with a personal touch), flair can evolve your melody into something unique.
Whitney Houston was a master of flair. The chorus melody of “I Will Always Love You,” a strong, yet simple melody on paper became so iconic because of Houston’s graceful touches. Her signature vocal runs and slightly tardy delivery are what make that melody so individual, and are certainly subject to bad imitation at karaoke bars around the world.
The beauty of adding flair is that it’s distinctly personal. In the example below, you’ll hear slides and passing notes that are absent in the previous example. What you decide to do with your basic melody is entirely up to you.
Learning how to write the perfect melody can certainly be tricky, by always remember that it’s not impossible. By starting with a small note range, establishing simple repeating rhythms, implying direction, and adding your own personal touch, your melody can be just as memorable as it is representative of who you are as an artist.