Writing great melodies

Writing great melodies

The melody is the aspect of your song that will immediately excite or bore your audience. It doesn’t take long to recognize that a tune is emulative, repetitive, lacking in creativity or just plain boring. Is there a way to learn to write great melodies? I’m not sure. I was asked recently if songwriting was gifting or training. It’s a good question, one without an easy answer. My reply was that it’s like seeing natural physical coordination in a child and knowing how that gift might be trained for football, baseball or gymnastics. I suppose my answer is that writing great songs is both a gift and a learned skill.

Too many aspiring songwriters rely on their natural musical gift and are lazy about increasing their skill or putting much work into songwriting. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating; writing great songs is work and you’ll only get better by learning about it and exercising your musical muscles. If you have a knack for a melody, you, too, can be George Gershwin! Are you willing to put the time and effort in that he did to get where he got?

Often, I’ll set a songwriting exercise of copying as closely as possible the style of a songwriter whose songs I respect. I’ve written Beatle songs, Sting/Police tunes, Van Morrison songs, some Crowded House, Squeeze, Eagles and even a James Taylor song here and there. The exercise helps me get into the mind and the style of the writer. I want to know what he was thinking when he sent his melody in the direction that tingled my spine.

There’s a Police song called “King of Pain” from the Synchronicity album that just intrigued me. So, I wrote a song called “Rejoice In My Triumph” that copped the feel of the song very closely. I’ve never recorded it and probably won’t. But writing it helped me to think about my melodies differently. Another song that I did record, called “Find It Here,” is very reminiscent of “Every Breath You Take,” right down to the key, the ever-present Sting major second chord and the drum pattern. Sometimes these things are intentional and sometimes they’re not. What you have to learn is how to make them intentional so you can also make them purposely unintentional. You’ve heard the songwriters whose songs all sound the same. Most of the similarities we recognize from song to song have to do first with the melody, then the rhythm or chord structure. So, let’s talk about making our melodies stand out from the crowd of mediocre songs. First, though, a disclaimer; talking about writing a great song is like describing fog. Once you’ve seen fog, you wouldn’t mistake it for anything else, and yet it’s pretty hard to explain. Laurie Anderson said “writing about art is like dancing about architecture.” How do you tell someone what a great melody is? The best way- perhaps the only way- is to point them to great music.

Let that be lesson number one; listen to great music. There have been a number of pop songwriters who have borrowed a lovely melody from a classical song. How did they know it was there? They were listening! Remember the computer-world acronym, GIGO. Garbage In, Garbage Out. Or, put a more benign way, whatever you feed your creative self will be expressed in your creative output. If you can expand your musical menu and train your palette to discriminating taste, your songs will show it.

Listening to great music will give you many opportunities to steal great melodies. I mean this in the grandest, most noble way. John Lennon said that all writers steal, but the best ones hide their sources. It’s true that what you hear will come out necessarily in your music. Let it. Take a melody, or a scrap of one, from a favorite song and let it be the starting point for a new song. Try converting a major run into a minor run, or the other way ’round. Turn it backwards and see if that spurs some other creative thoughts. And, by all means, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best!

Melodies make a statement. The most memorable melodies make a statement in a few notes. Our rule about writing simply applies to melodies as well as to lyrics. Let’s note a few examples of tunes that you can recognize in very few notes.

Yesterday (Lennon/McCartney)- There are actually only two notes and three beats in the first word of this song, but all you have to do is play them and everybody will know it.
Rhapsody In Blue (Gershwin)- an upward glissando on a trumpet couldn’t be anything else but this.
Theme from ‘Jaws’- two pulsing notes, scaring the sweat right off the cowboys.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony- a little minor action. You can get this one in four notes.
Theme from ‘Star Wars’- It makes me want to save the universe!
My Funny Valentine- three notes and six poignant syllables.

All these melodies catch you right at the start of the song. They also repeat throughout the song without becoming boring or overused. Some refer to this as the musical hook. A musical hook can be in the melody or in a riff or in a chord progression. A good melody is hook-y. So, when you’re writing a song, you want the melody to make a memorable statement and make it strong. You want it to be unique in its construction, but you don’t want it to be so weird that nobody can hang their hat on it. It’s got to be accessible to the commoner’s ears. Can I tell you how to do that? Can you dance about that building? All I can do is keep pointing you to the great songs and encourage you to learn at the feet of the masters, take what they have done and make it your own.

Most songwriters who bring their songs to me for critique stopped changing their melodies too soon in the construction of the song. A song in the writing process is like wet clay. If you leave it alone, unhandled in your mind too long, it will harden. You need a fridge and some plastic bags in your brain where you can store wet songs. Don’t let a song solidify until you are deliriously happy with the melody.

Rarely have I written a song when the melody and the choruses lyrical hook line weren’t written at the same time. I’m not one to write a melody and then try to fit a lyric to it, though I’d like to try that sometime. While I’m thinking of this cool lyrical hook, I’m trying out melody lines for it to see what notes will support the message. Sometimes I change the words to fit the tune; sometimes I change the tune to fit the words. Mostly, I’m rolling them both around in my hands at the same time, working on both together. I want especially to make sure that the melody does what the words suggest. If it’s a happy song, I want a happy melody. If it’s sad, the tune’s got to be sad, too. Sometimes you can highlight the poignancy of a sad lyric with a bouncy tune, but this is the exception rather than the rule. (I am strongly convinced that some writers have pitched their tent in the exception ‘field’ because they’re too lazy to learn to write by the rules. If it’s true that rules were meant to be broken, it is equally true that it takes an intimate, working knowledge of the rules to know how to break them artfully and gracefully. My advice is to learn all the rules, write a lot of songs by the rules and after that, bend toward the exceptions. Mental or musical laziness is not acceptable.)

Many of the songs I critique have the same or very similar melodies in the verse and the chorus. No melody is good enough that it should be used everywhere in the song. Besides, how will we know when the chorus starts? You want contrast. You want the chorus melody to either lift you all the way to the heavens or drag you all the way to the gates of hell. The verse can be earthbound but the chorus cannot. Vive la difference! In our pop song culture, most songs are structured loosely on this pattern;

Verse= Problem or Circumstance
Chorus= Solution or Result
Bridge= Benefits of Solution or Secondary Result

Like this;
Verse- I’ve got an achin’ in my heart
Chorus- It goes away when you come around
Bridge- Boy, does this feel great

That could be a pretty good country song right there!
Verse- I was alone
Chorus- I thought of you
Bridge- And how glad I am to be alone

This one’s a little trickier because the bridge turns the idea around unexpectedly. If you don’t see it coming, it’s a better ride.

In another metaphor, your verse is the set-up, your chorus is the punchline and your bridge is the followup joke. Like this Steven Wright routine;

I accidentally put my car key in my house… and it started… So I drove around for awhile.
I pulled over, got out of my house and started yelling at all the other motorists to get out of my driveway.
A cop pulled up and asked me, ‘Where do you live?’ I said, ‘Right here.’

Half the humor is lost without Steven to deliver the line for us, but the skeleton is there in the words. He sets up the scene, draws you in, delivers the punchline, waits a moment and hits you again. THAT is a hit song!

Wordplay is important in songwriting. Your melody can strengthen or weaken your wordplay by emphasis or de-emphasis. If you are going to be clever with your words, be clever with your melody as well, otherwise it has a good chance of falling flat. Your melody has got to carry the message along in a way that is befitting to the message. Not many tender love songs work when screamed. You also don’t want your melody to overpower the lyric. I can remember this happening most when a wonderful melody had words added to it after it had been written. ‘Ebb Tide’ is a slightly odd song because of this. So is ‘Love Is Blue.’ Make your melody work FOR your message, not the other way around. This is, I think, especially important for Christian writers.

Lastly, on a note directed specifically at Christian praise songwriters, make your melodies work for the masses. Your song has a better chance of being sung- and will consequently have a greater impact- if people can remember it and sing it. Put your song on all our lips!

This article originally appeared in Christian Musician magazine. Bob Kilpatrick wrote the classic worship choruses “In My Life, Lord, Be Glorified” and “Here Am I (Send Me To The Nations)”, has a daily devotional on the KLove radio network and has a new book coming out with Zondervan in 2010. His website is at bobkilpatrick.com

Other posts you may like:

How to write a really great worship song

Creative ideas on song writing – ink brethryn