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How to Write Catchy Melodies

Dan is a hobbyist musician and producer. Some of his instrumental music can be heard via his LinkedIn page.

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For those in the beginning or intermediate stage of musicianship, it helps to keep basic guidelines, terminology, and concepts in mind. Melodies are what make up the backbone and "groove" of music. Without them, music would more or less be without interest, reduced to more like interesting noise. In contrast, harmony is typically used as the accompaniment to be played along with the melody.

Different regions and cultures have their own preferences as to what makes a "good" melody, but there are different ways to approach their writing. Furthermore, music composers have preferences for writing melodies in certain genres or styles, and listeners have preferences as to which types of melodic content they'll listen to. Regardless of melodic preference, following some tried and true concepts can help maintain a larger audience.

Trends in Melody Writing

With the advent of computer technology and its ability to virtualize or streamline the playing of musical instruments and melody writing, a plethora of music is available through various online venues. However, there's also a demand for traditional talent, where skill with physical instruments has not gone away regardless of the modern ease that comes with computers. Because the demand for traditional talent remains, there are instrument players and composers constantly on the lookout for new melodic ideas.

Writing catchy melodies without the help of computers is generally more difficult since the composer has to do all of the thinking, whereas a computer typically comes with—to a certain extent—predefined melodic definitions and effects. Whatever the case, even with the help of computers, most composers benefit from a vocabulary for writing melodies.

Melodic Inspiration

Melodic content that stems from people—in some cases expressed with the help of computers—commonly starts with some type of inspiration, often from an unexpected source. The inspiration that melodies stem from is generally considered the soul of music, as it generally reflects the experience of the composer. However, sometimes musicians will listen to certain types of music to purposefully acquire inspiration or melodic ideas.

Once an idea or inspiration is acquired, it's time to get the composition materials out whether the writing is done via playing sounds or transcribing them onto paper. Often, artists will let their initial composition flow through the sound of their instruments and use that as a foundation for the rest of the song, while others may opt for paper transcription with a combination of instrument use, although many artists don't use any paper transcription.

Music Theory

Many musicians can write melodies without any formal music training or schools that teach music theory, although there are musicians who prefer instruction to some degree. Either way, knowledge of theory can help. A melody is a sequence of musical notes placed in some type of rhythmic order with the purpose of telling some kind of story or keeping the listener's interest.

Melodies in music are arranged where individual note pitches are placed at specific intervals apart with regard to sound frequency. A sequence of "half" steps and "whole" steps represents the difference between the frequency of notes in a melody.

For example, on a guitar, half steps are represented by metal frets directly adjacent to each other which means that in order to move one whole step in a melodic progression, the movement of two frets horizontally must be done, or striking the equivalent note on another string.

In music, the major scale represents the combination of whole and half steps used in much modern music. Melodies can be written using a sequence of chords (each with notes struck simultaneously), individual notes, or a combination of both. The "major scale"—and its 7-note half-step and whole-step combination—is typically used to construct chords, and notes played in a sequence.

Melodic Ideas

Assuming that you are using the major scale to write a melody, try starting by choosing four relatively basic chords, and don't stop there. Creating melodies that don't sound cliche calls for building a sense of tension and release. Without tension and release, melodies can sound bland, depending on what your goal is.

Using your selected rhythm, play the first chord. Play the next chord. Now play the third chord with an added chromatic note—these are notes that reside outside the 7-note scale structure you're playing in. When adding notes that reside outside the scale structure, there is a sense of clash and tension created which generates curiosity among listeners—it also creates a sense of pull wherein you'll hear it wanting to resolve to that last chord. After playing that third chord (with the added chromatic note), proceed to the last chord and it will probably sound like a nice, well-rounded melody.

The same concept can be applied when using the major scale to play notes in a sequence instead of chords. For example, if you play a sequence of notes in the major scale for about 5 seconds, and then play the same scale—substituting one of the notes with a chromatic note—for another 5 seconds, resolving back to the original scale will probably sound interesting.

The Big Picture of Melody

Many approaches can be used to write melodies, and other scale structures can be used besides the major scale. There is not necessarily a "wrong" way to write melodies, although the desired audience will determine what type of melodic content to include.

In fact, many composers like to write melodies spontaneously while performing live, although it's generally recommended to bring some experience (with melodic concepts) into the live improvisation, as the outcome can range from dissonant, to unpredictable and harmonious. Jazz players, for example, frequently improvise music on the fly which can be done after spending some time in the practice room learning where to find melodic ideas on an instrument.

Melody writing can also be accomplished after recording has been done. For example, different recorded samples can be combined during the arrangement process as opposed to during the melody writing process. It's common for producers to arrange prerecorded samples to create new melodies.

© 2021 Dan Martino

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