You can learn how to write a melody intuitively or with a nerdy, thought-out, theoretical approach. Both work. We have 13 tips on both methods below.
See here for more ideas on songwriting.
Melody is an opportunity for songwriters to let go. It is a chance to let go of inhibitions, let go of judgments, and create intuitively. Most songwriters and composers cannot explain how they create melodies. Writing a single line is deceivingly simple. If you think about it too much, it becomes difficult. Pablo Casals, the cellist and composer, says it well here:
“The heart of the melody can never be put down on paper.” – Pablo Casals
Beethoven here describes his struggle with melody (dramatically):
“From the glow of enthusiasm, I let the melody escape. I pursue it. Breathless I catch up with it. It flies again; it disappears; it plunges into a chaos of diverse emotions. I catch it again; I seize it; I embrace it with delight.”– Ludwig van Beethoven
Develop Tools for Creating Both Spontaneous And Thought-out melodies
All songwriters come to the moment of creation with a different set of skills: some hate text, some are poets; some have mastered twelve instruments, while others cannot play at all; some are intellectual, some intuitive.
Whatever skill set you come in with, it’s good to develop a set of tools for creating melody – to really learn how to write a good melody. Sometimes we can write unconsciously, sometimes we need to write consciously. Let’s outline some tips to help you let go and enjoy giving birth to your melodies.
First, let me just emphasise that there are no rules.
You can use step-wise melodies, melodies with large interval leaps, you can even have one or two-note melodies. Like the two-note melody in the Batman soundtrack!
You can apply melodies to everything in your song. Basslines can use melody, chords can use different voicings to create melody, rhythms even have a melody to them.
The melody approaches I will discuss here mostly have to do with singing, but all of these methods can be applied to instrumental melodies as well.
The main difference between composing and songwriting is the use of lyrics. Let the relationship between the words and the music open creative doors for you.
All of the elements in songwriting are leaning on each other: lyrics, melody, rhythm, harmony, structure. (See here for all our songwriting help)
When you talk drummers talk about rhythm, sometimes they start talking about melody. When poets talk about the melody in poetry, they start talking about rhythm!
This can be a tool for working out something you’re struggling with: work on the bits that are coming to you easily, and the other elements might work themselves out. Writing melodies can be about writing lyrics and vice versa.
Sammy Cahn, the great lyricist, always wrote with melody, rhythm, harmony, and structure in mind:
Sometimes the best way to find your melody is to figure out the natural melody in your lyrics.
Find the natural stresses in your lyric
We don’t sing on consonants. You can vibrate some consonants with your voice (e.g. b, v, z) but you can’t really sing on them. The vowels will free you up.
If I speak this line from Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee, I find myself creating a melody on the stresses, using the vowels.
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams of the beautiful Annabel Lee
No matter where you’re from, you have an accent. Everyone has a local sound in them. Find a natural melody in the way you speak. Embrace this. This is your melodic style.
Some people naturally raise their inflection at the end of every sentence they speak. Some people are super monotone. When Swedes speak Swedish, it’s like a roller coaster of song. If we exaggerate our speech a bit, we find ourselves singing.
Follow your natural inflection to give you ideas on your melodies.
Because you are human and you like music, you are likely to have your own instincts for melody. For me, creating melody through improvisation is the best method. But a bit of theory can help you make sense of what you’ve improvised and give you great ideas on how to improvise within a structure. I’ll outline some theoretical ideas on melody here to give us ideas for writing melodies.
On a basic level, within the notes of your chosen key, whether it’s major or minor, you’re going to have stable notes and unstable notes. The stable notes are the root, the 3rd, and the 5th.
All of the other notes are unstable, or dissonant. They will want to resolve to the stable notes.
Let’s look at the Beatles, I’m Looking Through You as an example of melody. We’ll apply a bit of theory to give us some ideas for your own melody creation. Here’s the whole melody:
A motive is the smallest melodic idea, the building block of melodies. The first two motives in our example (“I’m looking through you” and “Where did you go”) form a musical sentence. “I’m looking through you” is a musical question followed by a musical answer “Where did you go”.
Try to apply this idea of using question-and-answer phrases in your melodies.
The motive here creates tension against the chord progression with each repetition on the word “through”. The Db (IV) chord is outlined in the question (Db, F, Ab). The Fm (vi) is outlined in the answer (F, Ab, C). The Ab that is carried over into bar 2 is not in the Bbm7 chord. This creates tension in the melody. With each repetition that tension gives the listener a sense that the melody requires resolution. It needs an answer.
Experiment with suspensions and dissonance to create tension in your melodies. If all the notes of your melody are in the corresponding chord underneath, try suspending a bit of the melody into the next chord to create tension, like this example.
This first motive is repeated three times before the melody is finished. Repetition is a way of making your melodies clear to your listener. It’s also the key to writing a catchy melody. As Burt Bacharach said:
Never be ashamed to write a melody that people remember.
Explore the use of repetition and variation. If your melody never repeats itself, try to streamline it and use repetition. If it’s too repetitive, try variations on that motive.
On the third repetition of our melody example, the answer is different. This is the focal point in the melody. Up to this point, all the notes in the melody are part of the Ab major scale, and the phrases roughly outline the chords underneath. Now, on the third repetition, the answer (“You’re not the same”) uses Cb, which is not in the Ab major scale. It is the flat 7th of the Db7 (V7) (also the minor third of the Ab blues scale). It is also the highest note in the melody, and it is only used once.
Experiment with using a focal point, or one note in your phrase, the highest note, that is only used once. Also, experiment with the use of a note not in the tonic key to create tension. (Note: blue notes, minor third or flat 5 of the scale, are often useful)
I doubt that the Beatles ever got together and dissected this melody like I have above. Music theory allows one to closely listen to music and be able to look under the hood and see how it’s working. But it’s important to see it as a tool and not the answer to composition.
As I’ve mentioned in previous exercises, improvising a melody over a chord progression using gibberish text is a great way to create melodies. Scat, mumble, shout all on nonsense syllables – “na-jaajjja-doo-bajah” – play!
Recording yourself is essential, preferably with a DAW. This way you can edit your improvisations, taking the best parts from each take to create a melody you’re happy with.
If you get in front of the mic, press record, and hope for the best, you might not be so happy with the results. Try to have a clear goal for each take. Here are some ideas you might play with: