Writing Better Songs

01
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Writing an Effective Melody

To get the most out of this feature, it's suggested you read Writing in Major Keys and Writing in Minor Keys before proceeding.

Writing an Effective Melody

Of all the aspects involved with creating new songs, working on writing a strong melody is undoubtedly the most commonly overlooked in modern pop/rock music.

This wasn't always the case; the "pop" songwriters of the 1930's and 1940's focused greatly on writing melodies. In many cases the melody was the basis for a song, with lyrics and chords added later.

Generally, the process of writing a song is much different nowadays. Often, songs will be born out of a guitar riff, or a groove. This is built upon, and a chorus is written, basslines added, etc., so that the entire instrumental part of the song has been assembled even before the melody has been considered. From my experience in watching many bands undertake the process of writing music, the vocal melody will often then be added quickly, almost without thought. This isn't the best approach - without a strong melody, the vast majority of people won't give a song a second thought.

02
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Writing an Effective Melody (cont.)

Consider this, when you hear someone whistling a tune, what is it that they whistle? The chord progression? No. The bassline? Obviously not. The guitar riff? Very unlikely. It is almost universally the vocal melody of the song.

The vocal melody of the song is what sticks with most people; and in many cases is what makes them like or dislike a song - whether they realize it or not.

If your melodies are well-written and catchy, people will remember and enjoy your music. If the melodies you write are carelessly written and bland, they won't. It's that simple.

Try putting your music to the test; imagine you are hearing your music being played as muzac at your local shopping mall. No lyrics, no guitar riffs, just a syrupy string section behind a trumpet playing the melody. How does it sound? If a melody is strong, a song should sound good, no matter what style it is played in.

03
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Warmth of the Sun (The Beach Boys)

beach boys warmth of the sun
The love of my life... she left me one day.

Truly one of the best melodic songwriters in the pop world, The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson has often been overlooked because of much of the relatively lightweight music the band churned out. Wilson's writing style, however, is thoroughly distinctive, and he routinely writes melodies that are both complex and catchy (an often difficult task). The above classic Beach Boys tune, "Warmth of the Sun" (mp3 clip) is a perfect illustration of Wilson's melodic concept.

Perhaps Wilson's most distinctive trait as a songwriter is his use of wide interval jumps in his melodies. The above example illustrates this clearly several times. The first word of the phrase, "the", starts on a low G, the fifth of the Cmaj chord, which immediately jumps all the way up to an E on "love", which is a leap of a major 6th. Most other songwriters would have started the melody on a C, the root of the chord, instead of the G, thus the big intervallic leap wouldn't have existed, and the melody wouldn't have the trademark Brian Wilson sound.

If you look at the third and fourth full bar of the example, you'll see a full octave leap between notes in the melody (low Bb to a high Bb on "she left"). It is very rare to find leaps in a melody like this in pop and rock music, although it is a trait that some of the "alternative" bands began to explore in the mid-90's. The result was a new direction in the music that had noticable Beach Boys influence - Weezer's "Buddy Holly" is a perfect example of this.

04
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Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles)

El-ea-nor Rig-by... Picks up the rice in a church where a wed-ding has been... lives in a dre-am.

The ex-Beatle Paul McCartney is probably the most famous example of a great writer of pop melodies. The classic Beatles tune, "Eleanor Rigby" (mp3 clip) has to be one of Paul's prized possessions. A seemingly simple song with very few chords, "Eleanor Rigby" displays a number of strong melodic ideas that give the tune it's character.

Notice the thematic element of "Eleanor Rigby". The above main phrase of the tune is an unusual five bar phrase, broken into three smaller phrases. The first phrase is bar one, the second is bars two to four, and the last is bar five. Each phrase begins with the rhythmic figure of three eighth notes and a quarter note (two eighths tied together) - "Eleanor Rig-", "picks up the rice", "lives in a dre-". So, immediately McCartney has developed a rhythmic theme in his composition.

Also note how a melodic theme is developed in the second phrase. Beginning with "rice in a church", he sets up a melodic and rhythmic pattern which he repeats three times. Each melodic figure, a quarter note followed by two eighth notes, descends down a minor (dorian) scale. The first pattern starts on D, and descends; D to C# to B. The second starts back up one note and descends; C# to B to A. The last figure repeats this theme; it starts back on B and descends; B to A to G. Were McCartney to keep this theme going, the next figure would've been A to G to F#, then G to F# to E, etc.

Now, certainly McCartney wasn't thinking of all this when he penned "Eleanor Rigby". The purpose of this breakdown is to analyze what came naturally to McCartney, so that we can help see what makes his writing so special.

I'd encourage you to look at your own material the same way - does it use a thematic technique? By tweaking your music, could you develop some of your ideas a bit more in this style? These are questions we need to ask ourselves as songwriters.

05
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High and Dry (Radiohead)

radiohead high and dry
Don't leave me high........ Don't leave me dry.

This is a band that music critics can't speak highly enough of. One of the few modern bands with a real firm grasp on classic songwriting concepts, many of Radiohead's tunes utilize advanced techniques to modulate to different keys and  vary time signatures, yet their music is always highly melodic and emotional, never sounding "calculated". One of their more popular tunes, "High and Dry" (mp3 clip), from the 1995 release The Bends, demonstrates another effective melody-writing device.

The above example is the motif used in the chorus of "High and Dry", and although very short and simple, illustrates many songwriting techniques. It utilizes the aforementioned use of wide interval leaps (a technique used by Brian Wilson) on the words "high" (notice the pun - vocalist Thom Yorke jumps into falsetto as he sings the word "high"), and also on "dry". It also uses the thematic device (like described in the analysis of Eleanor Rigby) with it's repetition of the same phrase twice, over different chords; the first time over Emaj to F#5, and the second time over Amaj to Emaj.

There is an additional melodic device here, however, which is quite effective; the use of "color tones" in the melody. The note sung during "high" is a G#, which is held for an entire bar over the F#min chord. The G# is not actually a note in the F#min chord; although it certainly doesn't sound wrong. This melody note adds texture to the sound of the chord, and is a really nice songwriting device.

There are many other examples of this technique in pop songwriting. One very obvious and deliberate use of this is in Al Green's 1971 hit "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?" (mp3 clip) in which Green sings a D# (the major7th) over an Emaj chord throughout the chorus.