The following is adapted from Song Journey.
If you’re a songwriter, I’m going to share a hard truth with you.
Do you know how the average listener learns your song? Chorus melody.
That person in the car wants to hear something they can sing. Not the whole song, not your well-crafted lyric, not your infectious track…they want to sing something now!
Once they have the chorus melody in their head, it’s about the title.
Think of it this way. You call your best friend and say, “Hey, I just heard the coolest song.” He says, “Yeah? Sing it to me.” You sing a bit of the melody, and then he asks the title of the song so he can learn it, too.
If he gets it, he may focus on what it’s actually saying in the chorus. If he digs deeper, he goes for the verses and the other parts. It’s all about the chorus—in this case, the chorus melody. Most listeners will never get past the singing-the-chorus stage.
You want to make it one of those ear worms, a “can’t get it out of my head” melody. Doesn’t matter if you write music first, lyrics first, or write to tracks, no matter.
The melody is still king.
How do you write a killer melody? Let’s look at some strategies that might help.
Create an Environment of Freedom
One of my favorite tools for melody is to create away from the guitar, my main instrument. I might sit in my studio and play keyboards, might start with a drum loop to get in a groove and go from there to laying down a chord change. I’ll start singing something over the changes, and it may even feel pretty good.
I’ll record it just in case, but what I really love to do is record those chord changes and get away from my studio. I know the act of creating a melody might come from doing it while you’re playing, but for me, singing it over the changes I’ve recorded away from an instrument gives me more freedom to experiment with my melody.
Anytime you can create an environment of freedom with your melody, instead of being part of a performance, can only be great. Just starting your melody from some note other than the root of your chord can create a more interesting melody.
If the root note of your chord is a C and you sing a seventh over that to start, you’ve already created some tension and made the melody more interesting.
Another method to creating interesting melodies is to pick up an unfamiliar instrument. In short, don’t be afraid to suck. Play like a kid and see where it takes you.
If you get out of your comfort zone, you can’t rely on your usual tricks, and you just might find some melodic magic. That’s why I like to move away from my guitar.
Deconstruct Hit Melodies
Deconstructing melodies is a good shortcut to making your own great ones. Take a current song and spend some time making notes, asking yourself these questions:
Where does the melody start out?
What’s the highest note?
Is there tension and release in the melody?
Where does it show up?
I’ve even picked a melody out on guitar and visualized it as a box or a graph:
Where is the lowest note in the melody?
Where is the highest?
How do the notes in between relate to those highs and lows?
Visualizing the melody is a good tool that doesn’t require a theory background.
Test Your Melody
Once you have a melody in mind for the verse and chorus, try flipping them. Is your chorus melody really a stronger verse melody? Is your bridge melody a cool chorus melody? Might be worth a cut-and-paste just to see.
At the end of the day, make sure you can’t get the melody out of your head. Can you sing it in the car, on a walk? My favorite test is if someone who has been in the general vicinity while you’re creating it starts singing it. Second best is when you play it for someone and later on you hear them humming it.
I coach quite a few lyricists and not all have a knack for melody. I get them to write a lyric to an existing, familiar melody. It can give structure for them so that at the end of the day they have a lyric. Inspired by an existing song but not connected to it. With apologies to John Lennon and Elton John, “whatever gets you through the write.”
Tips for Creating Something Fresh
So how can you come away with something fresh, interesting, and impossible for someone to get out of their head? I’ll pick my top five to focus on.
Nothing gets more boring than hearing the same melodic rhythm throughout the whole song. There are some things you can try, from doubling up the number of notes in the chorus to trying the opposite. Short notes in the verse, long notes in the chorus, halftime in the bridge, stops, builds, anything to mix it up.
2. Length of Phrase
Similar to the rhythm fixes in that you want to mix it up. If every melodic section has the same number of lines and words per line, it’s going to get old quick. Try tapping out the words and make sure your sections are not all the same.
Another place your melody can bog down is the range, or lack of range. One of the reasons we respond to some songs and singers is the emotion they put into the melody. If your melody is rooted in one area throughout, it’s hard to get it to take off.
There are a million hits that feature the same chord changes from verse to chorus with the chorus being an octave up. Instant drama. Range can also serve to create moments in your melody. Think of singers such as Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, and those times the melody takes you to new heights in the song.
4. Your Comfort Zone
Learn to leave it. For me, this means trying different instruments, different tunings, but most importantly, listening to music that’s different than what I’m working on.
For instance, if you write rock, listen to classical, jazz, country, opera…You’ll be surprised by how much will creep into your melodies. I’m not talking about sitting down and dissecting every style of music. Just let it seep in. You are your influences.
The wider your influences, the more chances of blending them into something unique.
Don’t sit down and say, “This melody fits here because of the chord change,” or “This is just how I do it.” Take some time to let that subconscious in. That’s where it can go from being “nice” to being magical. It’s also one of the ways your voice as a writer comes in.
One simple trick: record your melody at any stage and just let it loop. At home, in the car, running errands. Just give it time to be the best it can be.
For more advice on writing a killer melody, you can find Song Journey on Amazon.
Mark Cawley is a hit songwriter who coaches other writers around the globe through his one-on-one, online service iDocoach.com. His songs have been on more than 16 million records with cuts ranging from Tina Turner to Wynonna Judd to The Spice Girls. His book, Song Journey, was released in April 2019 and went to #1 in 6 catagories on Amazon.Mark is a judge for the UK Songwriting Contest, Nashville Rising Star, Belmont University’s Commercial Music program, and West Coast Songwriter events. He’s also a contributing author to USA Songwriting and Songwriter Magazine, a sponsor for the Australian Songwriting Association, and a mentor for The Songwriting Academy UK. Born and raised in Syracuse, New York, Mark now resides in Nashville, Tennessee.