Easy Tools for Better Melodies

Andrea Stolpe

I’d like to talk a bit more in detail about melody writing, and specifically, the rhythm of the melody. Simply put, melody is rhythm plus pitch.  The pitch tells us what note to sing, and the rhythm tells us when and how long to hold it. Many times we songwriters play with pitch while turning a deaf ear to rhythm. But it is rhythm, I propose, that produces a more definable melody than pitch alone.

We have several tools to choose from when it comes to melodic rhythm. When we write, we are defining the length of the note, the length of the melodic phrase, and where to begin and end that melodic phrase. We can use short notes or long notes, we can start on the downbeat or before the downbeat or after the downbeat, and we can write a very long or a very short melodic phrase. The key to a strong melody is in the motif. The motif is strong when it can be remembered, and to be remembered, it must be defined and repeated.

As singer-songwriters, our melodies can sometimes be long, wandering phrases of medium length notes. Add to that rather tasteless concoction lyric that is somewhat abstract, poetic, and describing feelings about the common theme of love. The result is more often than not a forgettable song.

Try starting your next song melody by writing a short one or two measure motif. It’s amazing how just a few notes can come together to create a memorable phrase. If you sing the notes to the familiar lyric ‘Yesterday” by the Beatles, it is easily identified. And yet they’re just two notes, but it is the rhythm with which they’re played that makes those few notes identifiable.

As writers, we’ve got to listen to music that is outside of the genre we typically write within. Listening to Earth Wind and Fire for a week will help the singer-songwriter bring more groove and rhythmic-oriented writing to our sometimes lethargic styles. Try listening to some punk, or heavy rock, and see just how punctuated you can get your rhythms of your melody to be for good contrast.

If you find that your melodies aren’t very memorable, that doesn’t mean that they don’t contain strong melodic motifs. It just might mean that instead of using your entire bag of tricks at one time, you need to use more repetition of just one or two melodic motifs. Look for the strongest melodic motif in any melody you typically write. Then, try to involve more repetition of that single motif.

To really write better melodies, sometimes we have to put our lyric brain aside. Spend a week or two just writing melody. Put your instruments aside if you find it limits you. Write the melodies in your head if you find your vocal proficiency limits you. At any given time we songwriters juggle a lot of balls with melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyric. Setting a few of those balls down to focus on one alone can be the key to strengthening the whole song.

Happy writing,

Andrea

Andrea Stolpe
Andrea Stolpe

Andrea Stolpe teaches songwriting at Berklee Online and the University of Southern California. Her songs have been recorded by Faith Hill, Julianne Hough, and Jimmy Wayne. She is also the author of Popular Songwriting: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling.

6 Comments

  1. Tobias

    Great recommendations! Thank you!

  2. Jeff

    Good article, I will try to use your ideas today. FYI you said “too notes” when I think you meant “two notes” in describing Yesterday. Thanks for posting your piece.

    Jeff

  3. Hi Andrea, wonderful article. Thank you so much for these tips; you don’t know how much they help!

  4. J Oscar

    Good words on making good melodies.

    You do need to
    correct your “too” to “two” :)

  5. Admittedly it is not my strongest asset but I know that procrastinating is not my problem.
    So if there is a way to repeatedly write and re write until you get it then no problem. But lucky is not a writers best hold card.
    I believe to find your best you need several attempts with a few different perspectives.
    It is demanding however working is an action.
    Acting like a songwriter implies lots of trial and error.
    Just discard the most and least important ideas and make due.
    Struggle with the pen and pad not with the results or outcomes.
    Good luck and see you soon.

  6. If this helps feel free to contact me . I am interested in collaborating with others. On my personal projects or with yours.