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The Whys & The Ways To Improve A Melody

This is a followup to my last post about being willing to rewrite to get past the first layers of cliches (here). Today I’d like to emphasize how important it is to include melodies in this process of refining and honing.

In my experience melody is the most underserved aspect of songwriting. Writers who think nothing of rewriting a lyric 20 times often take their first melody idea as a given, a precious gift never to be touched – that is, rewritten or improved.

I think this is a mistake. Melody is like any other aspect of songwriting – it can be often improved with a little work.

Melodies are tricky. A lucky few of us seem to really have been born with a gift for it and don’t have to work at it too much. But most of us aren’t particularly blessed that way; we have to apply ourselves to get better.

Also, what makes a good melody? That’s harder to quantify than a well-crafted lyric or even a nice chord progression. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, “You know it when you hear it.”

But – since everything in songwriting ends up as sound – just like one’s ear for rhyming can be developed and made more sensitive and acute, so can the ‘ear’ for melody.

A couple of practical ways to do this:

* Listen to, play, and sing the melodies – just the melodies, without the chords (and even without the words) – of great melody writers such as Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Brian Wilson (stunning below), John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Amy Winehouse, Adele… and anyone whose melodies you like.

A good melody tells an eloquent story even without lyrics.

* Remember that melodies can move in one of three ways: Steps (more or less, scale-wise motion), Repeated Notes, and Leaps (jumps up or down of a 4th or more). Consider whether you’re using any one of these elements too much, or not enough. Contrast and unpredictability are essential.

* Once your song is past its initial stages, play your melody by itself; without words and chords. Play it on an instrument, one note at a time. Slow it down. See how it stands up on its lonesome.

I’ve been amazed at how many times this has revealed weaknesses in a melody of mine that seemed terrific when covered up by my guitar thrashing.

Although good melodies are often taken for granted, I believe that the melody is the aspect of a song that touches our hearts most directly and connects most with listeners on an emotional level. So I think it’s worth taking a closer look – or listen, in this case – before we declare it ‘done’.

Let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below:

Brian Wilson


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4 responses to “The Whys & The Ways To Improve A Melody”

  • Charity James

    Great stuff, Tony and great example with Brian. Thx!!

  • Todd Bird

    Thanks Tony. I obsess with writing and improving my melodies every day. Even though I sometimes get lucky and come up with an above average melody, more often that not, the melody is very pedestrian and forgetful. I am in awe of those who come up with catchy melodies with very little effort. For me the best songs combine a compelling lyric with the appropriate catchy melody. It’s a challenge in itself to write a great lyric and create a great melody, but to come up with a great lyric and melody that also sound perfect together is an epic feat. I think we all strive for that as songwriters. The Holy Grail of the craft. Thanks for continuing to write thought-provoking and insightful articles.

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