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Ideas and Advice for Real Songwriters (formerly songwright.co.uk)

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How to write a melody that works

Everyone composes from different starting points, whether with chords, melody, lyrics or a tiny snippet of an idea recorded months earlier. Sooner or later you are going to need a melody, but thankfully there’ a suprising consensus on what makes an effective melody. So much so that it’s possible to list common features:

1. Note choice. There tends to be a good balance between stepwise motion and leaps – too much leaping from one note to another can sound disjointed, but well judged leaping in pitch can be wonderfully expressive. Interesting non-chord notes are also often emphasised.

2. Rhythm first. try this out on friends: tap the rhythm to a famous tune, then then play the pitches – with the wrong rhythm – to another famous tune. Which will they recognise? The rhythm of course, providing its catchy enough (and most famous tunes do have a catchy rhythm).

What is a catchy rhythm? One that does’t use too many different note values, one that has some repetition.

3. Climax! This doesn’t have to be the highest note, but it often is. Take the verse of Cole Porter’s ‘Anyhing Goes’. – Two lines in a constricted range, suddenly leaping up to a climax on the line ‘Heaven Knows…’

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Ba6U6DNog4]

Yes, you’ll be able to think of melodies that don’t share every single one of those three, but if you’re writing a melody that isn’ quite working, maybe its time to sit back and appraise it. Are leaping between pitches too much? Is there enough rhythmic variation? Too much? Is your highest note at the wrong point?

After the moment of inspiration, a little thought is sometimes required.

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