Writing Melodies

Melodies should usually bear a close relationship to the chords that underpin them, although not every note of a melody need be supported by an underlying chord. One way to improve a melody might be to think about how best to balance steps and leaps.

As songwriters, composing melodies is one of our most important tasks. Ideally, they will come naturally, and we won’t have to worry about them much. If you have trouble writing melodies, though, or you notice that your melodies don’t always seem quite right, this chapter may help point you in the right direction.

Your melody and the chords should complement each other. It doesn’t matter if you write the chords first, or the melody, or come up with both simultaneously. Many notes of the melody should be tones from the chords that accompany them. Here’s an example of how not to do things:

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It might be obvious why this didn’t sound good, but just in case: The first chord is G major (G, B, D), and yet the melody in that measure consists of A, C and E. In the second measure, we have a C chord (C, E, G), but the melody includes D, A, F# and B. The chords do not match the melody, and we probably should change one or the other.

This sounds better:

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The melody during the G chord is entirely Gs, Bs and Ds, and during the C major chord, we have Cs, Es and Gs. Now our melody and our chords sound aligned.

Then again, this last example sounds a bit square. We probably don’t want to base our melody entirely around notes from the chords. If we do, we’ll have a very limited number of melodic choices, and we’ll be forced to use lots of skips (melodic motions that skip one note letter, like from G to B, in which we skip A) and leaps (melodic motions that skip more than one note letter, like from C down to G, in which we skip B and A).

One good guideline for writing good melodies is to have about half to two-thirds steps (melodic motions up or down by only one note) and about one-third to half skips and leaps. This way, our melody will seem balanced. For example, here’s the beginning of the melody of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” from the movie The Wizard of Oz.

 

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“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” contains a number of large leaps, including octave leaps in m. 1 and measures 2-3, and leaps of sixths in measures 3 and 5. Note, however, that most of these leaps are followed by steps in the opposite direction, offsetting them somewhat. The high Ab on “where” descends by step to G, the F on “up” drops to Eb, and the Db on “a” descends to C. Also, the first five measures of the melody contain plenty of leaps, including several very large ones, so the last three measures are instead heavy on steps and skips.

The “one-third to one-half skips and leaps” principle is only a guideline, however. Melodies in contemporary pop songs violate it with some frequency. Many of them repeat a single note or rely very heavily on stepwise motion – see the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” for example, or the chorus of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls.”

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The steps-and-leaps principle is also an outright poor one for certain kinds of pop music where the vocal part contains a high degree of rhythmic activity, such as much of James Brown’s music, or, for a more recent example, Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.”

It’s also possible to write good melodies that feature plenty of consecutive leaps, although this is somewhat less common. The chorus of Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” features a prominent hook built entirely on skips and leaps that outline the chords underpinning them.

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One also sometimes sees beautifully written melodies that do not seem to match well with the chords that underpin them. If you find, however, that your melodies are too repetitive or unfocused, ensuring that there’s a good balance of steps and leaps can be a good way to get them back on track. And even if not all good melodies fit with the template I’m suggesting, your songwriting is likely to improve if you think about how your melodies deal with steps and leaps.

So let’s rewrite our melody from before so that it contains a bit more motion by step.

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This is hardly an outstanding melody, but it’s getting smoother. We’ve retained the leap up from G to D that began the previous iteration – that leap seemed like a distinguishing feature. We’ve also included a skip from C to E to begin the second measure. Otherwise, we’ve made the melody smoother by adding some stepwise motion.

As a result, a couple of the notes seemingly clash with the chords. The first measure contains a C, but C is not a member of the G major chord (G, B, D). The second measure contains a D, which is not a member of the C major chord (C, E, G). That is okay – in our pursuit of a reasonable balance of steps and leaps, we will sometimes want to include notes that are not in the chords that underpin them. It’s just that we will want to be judicious with notes that fit that description. These notes are called nonchord tones, and we will discuss them in detail in Chapter 11.

The first verse of Kygo and Selena Gomez’s “It Ain’t Me” nicely balances steps and leaps. It primarily uses notes that are in the chords that underpin them, but there are quite a few that aren’t.

 

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The melody moves by step until a skip down from C to A for “sipping.” From there, it leaps up a sixth to the “whis” in “whiskey.” Once this fairly large leap occurs, what follows is a series of steps (down to E, then D, then C) in the opposite direction. “It Ain’t Me” shares this feature with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It’s as if moving by step in the opposite direction of a leap helps our ears process it. See if you can figure out which notes don’t match the chords. (You might also want to return to this melody after reading Chapter 11.)

The prechorus of the song continues with a similar balance of steps and leaps.

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There aren’t many leaps here, but there don’t need to be, because the one from the C down to F at the beginning of the phrase is quite striking. The first four notes of the prechorus are in a much higher register than the verse, and the leap down from C to F emphasizes the dissonant tritone relationship between B (the note that begins the phrase) and F. Adding many more leaps after this very distinctive one might make the melody feel too busy. Again, most, but not nearly all, the notes of the melody are in the chords that underpin them.

If you already feel your melodies are strong, don’t let this chapter lead you astray. Good melodies take a wide variety of forms. If, however, your melodies could use some work, consider thinking about the relationship between the notes of the melody and the chords, and about the balance of steps and leaps.

Songwriting Exercise

Using the following progression in the key of G major, write a melody primarily using steps and repeated notes.

G / / / | D / / / | Em / / / | C / / /

Then, using the same progression, write a melody using lots of skips and leaps. Then write a melody that features a balance of steps and skips/leaps.

Next Chapter: Nonchord Tones