With these four tips, we are going to consider some powerful concepts to keep in mind when writing a vocal melody. As producers and songwriters we often heavily rely on intuition, instinct, and raw emotion when writing. This is great and are definitely the foundations of a good song. However sometimes these raw ideas won’t engage and communicate emotion to our listeners as much as we’d like them to; that’s where “song craft” comes in. Once you start to dig a bit deeper and study the melodies of popular artists across multiple eras and genres, from The Beatles to Taylor Swift and everything in between, you’ll see that there are many techniques they have in common. This is no coincidence – the writers have understanding of the “craft” of writing an effective melody. So, let’s get going and explore some of these techniques.
Tip 1 Rhythmic contrast
Engaging, varied rhythms are crucial to modern melodies.
The intricate and syncopated rhythms of rap have had a huge influence on modern melody writing. Engaging, varied rhythms are crucial to modern melodies. Try to utilize a wide range of rhythms from quick fire 16th notes, to long sustaining notes lasting a full bar. Much like a producer working on a track, it can useful to break your melody up into 8 bar chunks (or 16 bars if working at a fast tempo). Every 8 bars be sure to have a different rhythmic focus to your melody. So, if your opening idea has slow, sustaining notes, you should consider a more wordy, rhythmically complex section to follow. This gives a sense of a movement and anticipation that is satisfying to the listener.
- Dua Lipa – “New Rules” /1st 8 bars 8th notes phrases / 2nd 8 bars long sustained notes (followed by a few 8th and 16ths) / 3rd 8 bars mostly 16th notes / – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2qgadSvNyU
- Zara Larson – “Ruin My Life” moves through three 8 bars sections of gradually faster rhythms – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OTjFqWcDQY
- Haim – “Now I’m in it” – packed with rhythmic contrast and syncopation – opens with fast conversational 16ths, then sparse staccato words “we cannot be friends…” & finally more sustained connected notes “Cos now I’m in it, but I’ve been trying to find my way back for a minute” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-UnzRM24IM
Tip 2 Melodic Contrast
We have lots of options available to us when putting a series of notes together. For example a melody could gradually ascend up a scale throughout a whole bar, or in contrast it could descend from a high notes down to a low note, it could focus on going back and forth between just two adjacent notes, or it could even leap from one note up a whole octave, creating some serious impact. Just like the rhythmic contrast, most great vocal melodies will use a range of contrasting melodic movements in order to take the listener on a journey. Try and be aware of the melodic movements you are using and keep them varied. If you have a section that just goes back and forth between a couple of adjacent notes, try out some bigger gaps in the next section. Or, start with an ascending melody, then do the opposite and go down the scale in the next section. There are infinite possibilities, but the key idea is to use a range of different techniques throughout a melody to keep your listener engaged in the story you are telling.
- Naughty Boy ft. Beyoncé & Arrow Benjamin “Runnin’ (Lose It All)” – the opening verse is characterised by a melody that travels down through the scale, whereas the chorus climbs up through the scale – a perfect contrast – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJSik6ejkr0
- David Bowie – “Starman” – oh yes, I’m going back to 1972 for this example – the verse is mainly small interval gaps, whereas the chorus has huge impact with an interval of a whole octave jump on the word “Starman”) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRcPA7Fzebw
- Katy Perry – “Roar” check out how the opening melodic idea contrasts descending and ascending movements – it creates melodic contrast within the first 15 seconds of the song) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CevxZvSJLk8
Extra tip: it can be a bit tricky to pick out these melodic movements as first, but a really useful exercise is to listen to a melody you love and try and play the notes on a keyboard, you don’t have to play it well or learn it by heart, the key thing is noticing the intervals between the notes and the direction of the melodies in the song.
Tip 3 – Peak at the Chorus
The chorus is the emotional and energetic release of a track and this should be reflected in the melody. As a general rule you want to save your melody’s highest note for the chorus. Conversely your verse should show some restraint, easing your listener into the story and giving the music some room to breathe.
As a general rule you want to save your melody’s highest note for the chorus.
It’s common for the melody to be slower and more sparse at the beginning of a track allowing for a build up of complexity and intensity (however, check out the Haim – “Now I’m in it” example from point 1 – the opening vocal is very fast – it’s the relaxed delivery and low register that eases us into the track here).
Saving those big high notes for the chorus works for a number of reasons. Firstly, they will physically push a vocalist harder on the chorus, just when the listener wants to hear that emotional release. Secondly, the track arrangement is likely to get busier and more energetic – the louder more intense vocal is going to reinforce that and also cut through the arrangement better. Thirdly (if you really need another reason) there’s going to be a great contrast as we step back down in intensity for verse 2 and start the climb up to the next chorus.
- Calvin Harris & Disciples – “How Deep Is Your Love” – the verse uses short phrases followed by plenty of space and the vocalist is at a low intensity part of their register. The chorus is much more intense and commands our attention – the notes are higher and there is much less space for the track. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgqUJOudrcM
- Clean Bandit – Symphony (feat. Zara Larsson) – again the verse is quite sparse and relaxed, the pre-chorus more wordy and intense and the chorus is an all out belter with some seriously high notes! – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aatr_2MstrI
Tip 4 – Use Various Types of Repetition
When you start out writing, using repetition can feel a bit unnatural and might even feel a bit like cheating; however there is some form of repetition in all great melodies. It can come in many forms and usually various techniques are used in one track. A memorable melody will often be made of phrases that repeat exactly the same notes and rhythm but with a different lyric. The trick is to have various contrasting phrases, as explained earlier, to maintain the interest, but also use repetition so it is not too overwhelming and sticks in our memory.
Another form is complete repetition – same melody, rhythm and lyric. This is usually better for short phrases and creates what could also be called a hook. These are little snippets of melody that we can’t help singing along to when we hear a song on the radio.
- Dua Lipa “New Rules” – the opening line “Talking to myself at night making myself crazy” is followed by an identical phrase “Wrote it down and read it out, hoping it would save me” – if you played the notes on a piano the two lines are exactly the same. In the same phrase she also uses complete repetition – she sings “Out of my mind” twice at the end of the opening phrase. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2qgadSvNyU
- Zara Larsson – “Ruin my Life” – as with the Dua Lipa example the verse is made of a phrase which is repeated but with a different lyric. Complete repetition is also being used, she repeats “I miss you” three times in the opening verse with identical phrasing. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OTjFqWcDQY
Once you get an ear for these techniques, you will hear them everywhere. I could have switched on the radio (which is actually what I did!) and used the vast majority of popular tracks as examples. As you practise using these suggestions they will become second nature and you won’t have to deliberately put them into your songs in a way that might feel contrived. That being said, often if you’ve written something that isn’t quite working, most ideas can be improved by re-writing with these techniques in mind. Looking back over previous songs that didn’t quite work, you might ask yourself the following:
Does the melody have much rhythmic interest and contrast?
Is the melodic movement a bit samey? Could an ascending/descending line, or some big intervals jumps bring it to life?
Is the chorus acting as a big emotional/energetic release or is it at a similar intensity level to the verse & pre-chorus?
Is there too much “information” for the listener to take in? Could you remove some lyrics and/or musical phrases and use some repetition?
You never know, you might take an average idea and make it into something people want to play on repeat!