Ever listened to a song and it has been stuck in your head for days? This is because of the songs’ melody. It’s usually the most memorable and recognisable part of a song. It is this part of the song that is easy to pick up and remember.
Writing a good melody is often tricky and great melodies vary from one person to the next. For example, songs like Aerosmith’s’ I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing or My Heart Will Go on by Celine Dion has continually made the lists for greatest melodies, however, not everyone may like these number one hits.
So, what are melodies and how did they come to be?
The dictionary defines a melody as a musical sequence of single musical tones that are organised in a song or a musical number. This is one of the basic elements for all musicians and songwriters.
A note is a single sound with a certain pitch and rhythm, but when a number of differently pitched musical notes have been put into a sequence a melody is formed.
It is important to note that not all musical successions are a melody – a melody is sonically pleasing and is the part of the song that lingers in your memory. Most melodies are usually quite simple and often repeated throughout songs.
Melodies are crucial to many modern pop songs today. It is usually the chorus or a few verses that follow that have the same note pattern and are carried out throughout the song. There are two key elements of a melody.
Firstly, there is pitch – the audio vibrations we hear when an instrument is played. And then there’s duration. Duration describes the length of the sounds we hear from instruments.
Music has been around for at least the last 43,000 years. One of the oldest songs that have survived in its entirety in the world is a Greek song that was written during the AD 100s.
The song known as “Seikilos Epitaph” was found inscribed on a marble tombstone in Turkey and came with musical notations.
Melodies have advanced over many centuries with periods such as the Medieval and Renaissance eras aka middle English melodie refining music, however many musicologists suggest that the European Baroque era (between the 17th and 18th century) is when music made its biggest advancements in history. Notable Baroque musicians include:
Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the most influential composers of the European Baroque era and essentially shaped the principles of what we know melodies to be today.
His advancements in both harmonies and melodies transformed music and inspired most of the music that was written in Western music following him.
His tradition of a stepwise motion in music has lasted for centuries and can be heard in most musical numbers from opera music composed by Giuseppe Verdi to Saxophone solos from jazz artists such as John Coltrane.
Not only has Bachs’ stepwise notion, where notes move only by a half-tone or whole-tone, survived the test of time but other elements of his compositions are still heard in modern music i.e. occasional leaps and focal points. These additional elements were used to make certain parts of the melody stand out and distinguish a section of the composition from another part.
Focal points on sheet music often look like a V or W pattern.
On sheet music, both pitch and duration are denoted on a 5-line staff. The shape of notes and where they lie on these lines represent the pitch and duration.
The length of a melody can be long or short. Short melodic line sequences are also known as a riff or motif.
The human ear hears higher-pitched noises a lot easier than lower-pitched ones. Because of this, the melody of most songs is usually of a higher pitch compared to other components of a song. The melody needs to stand out and grasp the attention of the listener. Melodies are used by nearly all musicians, no matter what genre they perform or what instrument is used.
A solo singer will use a melody when singing the main part of a song i.e. the chorus
Choruses also sing a melody, however, some melodies vary in pitch rather than the same notes being sung in unison. Members of a typical church choir sing consistent melodies at different ranges, but they all follow the same rhythm.
Percussion instruments also play melodies but often when a melody is played by an instrument the focus is more on the duration instead of pitch.
Composers of Western classical music often introduce an initial melody and then add in variations. Most western classical music compositions have numerous melodic layers, called polyphony. Often, melodies are created from motifs or short melodic fragments.
The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a good example of this.
Although many jazz numbers are actually improvised and don’t follow set musical phrases, in Jazz instrumentalists use the term “lead” or “head” to refer to the central melody which is used as a starting point.
Rock music and other popular music genres tend to follow only one or two melodies throughout the chorus and verses. Sometimes a third, distinct melody, called a bridge, is added to songs as a break.
A melody is often referred to as a hook or tune however it should not be confused with a harmony.
Although the two go hand in hand with each other, a melody is simply a collection of notes. Harmony happens when a layer of notes come together. There are usually two or more different sounds coming together to form a harmony.
Think about playing a song on the piano where one hand is playing a melody and the other hand is playing a different melody. Both melodies come together to form a harmony.
You can start off comprising a melody by choosing at least two major chords progressions, such as C or F. Use an instrument to play the initial chords or the piano function on your DAW and loop it over and over or record over Midi for payback via the DAW software.
Either play an instrument or sing with an ideal melody in mind. Get creative as possible until you find a melody that works best. Ensure your recording device is set up and ready to capture the melody making process.
Good melody-writing is not a talent that can be formed overnight. It is something you will need to practice and get better with over a long period.
Never give up! If you have been trying and trying to come up with a good melody with little to no luck, always remember that are many successful artists who were once in the same position.
Broaden your music horizons. You never know where you might find inspiration. Listen to a wide variety of songs from different genres and eras and try to focus on the distinct melodies that intertwine to create full songs.
Approaching melody-writing with an experimental, improvised nature gives you the best chance at developing a melody that is unique.
Most music listeners favour originality as well as something sonically pleasing!