What makes a good melody?

Most music uses melodies. Often they’re sung by the lead vocal but can also be played by other instruments, such as s synthesiser or guitar. Melodies play a big role in how memorable a song is – it’s usually what listeners hum to themselves after hearing the song. Melodies also form a big part of the song’s identity and character.

But not all melodies are created equal. Some seem to effortlessly soar or speak for the music. Others aimlessly meander or get stuck in a loop and go nowhere.

If you’re composing a melody, you should keep the following guidelines in mind:

Variety

Maintain the listeners’ interest by keeping the melody in motion. Momentum and development are key here. Make sure it feels like it’s going somewhere – not just repeating the same loop over and over again. A repeated two-bar loop is not a melody – it’s an ostinato pattern. While I’ve written about development and momentum in the context of overall song structure, it applies equally on the smaller scale of melodies (and on the larger scale of EPs and albums!).

Contour

As important as variety is, a melody that is constantly changing can easily feel as if it’s aimlessly meandering. It’s just as important to give the melody some shape. An example is melodies that follow the traditional advice of starting at a low pitch and peaking at the highest pitch about two-thirds of the way through. Not all melodies need to follow this shape, however. As a composer, you’re free to choose any shape – up, down, mountain, valley, wiggle, etc – but you must choose a shape! Often it makes sense to divide your melody up into segments – called ‘phrases’ – and give each phrase its own distinct contour. This will help the listener follow and understand the melody, which in turn helps in recognising and remembering it.

Something special

A good melody doesn’t just follow the rules. A good melody brings something quirky or special to the song. It doesn’t have to be totally unique – but it does have to have some character and identity. This could be musical – such as an accidental from a borrowed scale/mode, or an interesting rhythmic motif . It could also be in the sound itself – such as an unusual instrument or a distinctive synthesiser patch.

…and if you’re thinking to yourself that your music doesn’t have melodies – maybe it’s hip hop or abstract IDM… These guidelines apply to any foreground part. It can be spoken word vocals, chopped up samples, additive spectral noise, or anything else that you want your listeners to focus on.

If you want your listeners to be interested in it, you have to make it interesting to listen to!

-Kim.

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