Whenever someone thinks of their favorite song, it’s almost always the melody that springs to mind first. Anyone who’s singing their heart out in the shower or humming along to the radio is very likely following the melody almost the entire time – depending on how good of a singer they are.
So how do professional composers and songwriters sit down at a piano or their instrument of choice and hammer out a melody that becomes the earworm that an entire generation has stuck in their heads for decades to come? Do they just sing over the top of a chord progression and use their intuition to discover what feels right?
As with any artistic process, every musician can have their own way of approaching the process; but there are a few useful tricks to learn and rules to own that can make the life of an aspiring composer much easier.
Perfect and Not-So-Perfect Harmony
Harmony in music occurs when at least two notes are played at the same time. If the notes fall into the same scale, particularly if they follow a specific chord pattern, they’re what’s known as consonants, meaning they sound good together. For instance, a major third or a perfect fifth both sound happy and resolved, which make sense: They’re the notes that make up a basic major triad.
On the other hand, dissonance is the polar opposite: It occurs when two or more notes clash and sound “bad” together. For instance, a lowered second, which is two notes only a half-step apart, can either sound grating and frightening or tragic and melancholy depending on the articulation and instrumentation used.
Once you’ve written your chord progression and analyzed every chord so you know all the notes that fit into it, you can see clearly which notes will bring you consonance and dissonance. By following the emotions in your work, you can use both types of harmony to inject the exact feeling you want into the melody.
Rhythm: How Many Notes and Where to Put Them
Rhythm is key to writing a catchy melody, and a huge part of that is knowing when to use space instead of crowding your mix – and the listener’s ear – with every run and lick that you can think of. Sometimes more is less, and when you give your lyrics or melodic voice room to breath, it can make the emotional impact or catchiness all the more potent.