While related articles leave you confused with fluffy information, this blog post is designed to give you actionable tips to write better music today.
Think of these tips as guidelines (that can be broken) to help you with your melody writing process!
With that being said, let’s begin…
The topic of Music Theory is vast and complicated. It doesn’t have to be complicated and I’ve created a resource that goes through everything you need to know to be a competent musician, songwriter, and producer. I would highly recommend checking out that article as a primer to the rest of this article and other theory posts I have on this site. It’s titled “The Ultimate Guide on Music Theory for Musicians Who Dislike Theory.“
What makes a great melody catchy?
Before you can make great melodies, you need to understand what makes a melody popular and memorable.
The more earworm-y the melody is, the better the chances it gets stuck in a listener’s head for days. A song’s popularity and marketability rely heavily on its ability to be catchy and singable by its listener upon first listen.
When you peek under the hood of what makes memorable melodies, you’ll see that they have followed similar guidelines. These aren’t necessarily “tricks,” but built-in truths in music theory and how we humans perceive music.
Be intentional with motif writing
A motif is often a brief and straightforward melodic phrase that repeats often. It typically gets introduced at the very beginning of songs. Still, it can also be potent for a chorus in pop melodies.
When you sit down to write your own melody, the motif will be your “golden nugget” that will carry your song.
An excellent motif includes two main components:
Repetition is usually found in rhythmic patterns. While variation is found in the choice of notes.
However, there will be times when you want to change the rhythm slightly and keep the notes the same.
Remember, whenever you write a motif, come up with different ways to vary slightly.
If you fail to do this and keep repeating the same melodic and rhythmic pattern, your motif will get boring.
Rhythm is a huge topic on its own. If you want to take a deeper dive into rhythm on how to utilize it for your songwriting, please refer to my article “Everything You Need To Know About Rhythm in Music As a Songwriter.”
Understand harmonic and non-harmonic notes
Harmonic notes are the notes within a chord progression being played.
For example, if you play a C Major chord progression, the notes would be C, E, and G, which would be the harmonic notes.
Non-harmonic notes, on the other hand, would be the notes that are in the scale but not a part of the underlying chord.
Our ears want non-harmonic notes to resolve to their nearest harmonic tone.
This will create a feeling of resolution and predictability in a song. However, songwriters who understand the natural biological tension created within a person when the note doesn’t resolve unlocks the songwriting secret to good melodies.
These melody types should be used sparingly and tastefully because too much could irritate the average listener.
The next time you write a verse melody, try ending it on a non-harmonic note. Then resolve the tension created by l into the chorus melody to really make it pop!
Question and answer melody writing
Another way to understand this concept of harmonic and non-harmonic notes is by thinking of them as questions and answers.
When you use non-harmonic notes at the end of your melody, you create questions. The listener will feel like something isn’t complete and will want a resolution to that musical phrase.
When you end your melody on a harmonic note, you create an answer. This creates resolution with the listener, and they will perceive the melody as complete.
Try writing a melody over a chord progression
It can be helpful to write melody ideas over the chords of an instrument. Whether this is writing on a guitar, piano, or software VST, having a chord progression already mapped out on an instrument will help you with your melody writing.
If you struggle with writing chord progressions, there are some great online resources that you can leverage to help you with this step. My favorite is Hookpad by HookTheory.
Break your melody out into phrases
A musical phrase is a short section of a song.
In 4/4 time, every set of four quarter notes is its own phrase or bar. So there would then be a group of four phrases/bars.
How we perceive music, in general, is based on repetition and familiarity. By dividing your musical phrases up into smaller portions, it will help you write shorter melodies (motifs) and experiment with small iterations throughout the phrases.
This tip is easier to visualize if you work within a digital audio workstation (DAW) because of the grid-based nature.
Create your musical phrasing for block 1, then add a slight variation for block 2, go back to the melody of block 1 for block 3, then something totally different for block 4.
This process will make a melody more exciting and predictable, essential to getting a song stuck in someone’s head.
Experiment with the chord changes within the phrases and see how that changes the melody of the music. Different chords can really change the feel of your melodic ideas.
Save a note for the chorus melody
This technique involves avoiding a particular pitch until you hit the chorus. This works well if you save the tonic note (the root note) for the chorus.
If you dance around the tonic in the verse melody and then hit it in the chorus, you give your audience a great payoff. This will make your melody more exciting and catchy.
This tip works because the tonic is the focal point for your song’s melody and is the most stable and satisfactory note in the scale.
Think of this songwriting tip as foreshadowing to your climactic moment of the chorus.
Use the major scales
Most melodies in a pop song are going to be utilizing major scales. You might not want to write pop melodies, and that’s fine.
However, there is a reason why pop songs get famous, and that is because major scales are highly familiar to your average listener.
This type of scale is also incredibly flexible. It has all the ingredients you need to express many different kinds of emotions and make great songs.
To understand major scales, think back to elementary school music class.
Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do.
This is the major western scale.
Also, when you learn major scales, you discover the keys to more sophisticated scales like music modes and minor scales.
Experiment with writing melodies by re-arranging these vowels into different orders and see what you can come up with.
To get a deep dive into Major Scales, check out my article!
Use the pentatonic scale for note selection
The pentatonic scale is a type of musical scale that only has five notes.
The name comes from the Ancient Greek word “Penta,” which means five.
It is derived from the major scale and can be either minor or major.
The benefit of using the pentatonic scale when creating a new melody is that it is challenging to make any combination of these notes sound bad.
As long as the chords being played are within the key, you will quickly write a good melody.
Write in steps and skips
Melodies are “musically flavored” based on the distance (intervals) between two notes.
A stepwise motion is no more than a half or whole step-change in the melody. While a skip is a larger jump between notes, greater than a whole step.
Steps are more predictable and connected.
Skips are more open and can create more powerful sounds and melodies.
For a general rule-of-thumb, you would try using stepwise writing in your verses and skips in the chorus.
Write with contrast
The goal is to write music that is engaging and unique. The best way to make sure that you keep a listener from skipping your song is by using contrast when you write a melody.
If your motif has a repeating rhythm, then change the pitch of one or more notes during the melodic phrases.
Starting note position
The most common way to start writing a melody is on the downbeat.
However, writing a melody behind the downbeat or on the upbeat for different song sections can be an excellent way to keep your melodies sounding fresh and exciting.
If you are in 4/4, the downbeat is:
1 and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and
1 and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and
Behind the downbeat:
1and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and
Try writing each section (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) of your song to start at a different position.
Contrast between verse and chorus
If your chorus melody consists of long notes, then write your verse melodies with short notes.
This contrast in rhythm can help make your different sections stand out and help you write songs that don’t sound one-dimensional.
Also, be aware of the melodic shapes of your sections. For example, if your verse has a melody that descends (goes downwards), write your chorus to ascend (go upward).
Listen for melodies in your everyday speech
The natural cadence of our speech has melody embedded into it. Think about your vocal inflections when you are excited, sad, or contemplative. Those are great places to discover a more natural melody.
Record yourself talking and see if you can hear a natural melody in your voice and words.
What to do next?
There is no right or wrong way when learning how to write a melody. However, to write better melodies, it helps to utilize proven guidelines used in countless songs.
These basic tips should help your music stand out and get you past writer’s block the next time you sit down at your instrument to write.
Speaking of which, if you need help bringing this all together to write a great song, go check out our article on How To Write A Song now!