Writing Great Melodies in 7 Steps
Writing great melodies often feels like a mysterious art. In this blog post, we’ll break down the melody writing process into 7 simple steps. Of course, there’s no one right way to write a melody and these steps are just designed to show you the essential elements of melody writing. So, you’ll be able to write songs better and faster.
This blog post aims to summarise our video “How to Write Great Melodies in 7 Simple Steps’’. Click here to watch the video for more details, explanations and examples.
Step 1 – Figure Out the Scale
Choosing the right scale is like selecting the key ingredients for a recipe. When you know your scale, you’ll be able to narrow down the choices of notes you have to build your melody from. Common scale choices are usually either major or minor.
For example, if we choose the key G Major, we’ll automatically know that the following are notes we have to build our melody from:
G A B C D E F# G
From here, you could just sing the notes of the scale and combine them till you form a melody. However, a more intuitive method for most beginner songwriters is to pick 3 or 4 chords from the key you’ve chosen, create a chord progression and sing over it. This makes it really easy for you to form a melody from the scale, and always have it fit over the chords you’ve chosen.
Click here to download a free PDF eBook containing all the diatonic chords written out in 6 different keys titled “Diatonic Chords in 6 Different Keys”:
Step 2 – Create a 4 Note Melody
Limiting the number of notes you use from the scale is important, because of a few reasons:
- Imposing limitations forces you to be more creative with less material.
- Using all 7 notes will result in a melody sounding just like an exercise.
- You will be able to save some notes for use in other parts of the song.
At this stage, it’s not necessary for the melody you create to be perfect. This melody will be refined and you’ll create different iterations of it in later steps.
Step 3 – Use Steps and Leaps
Before we discuss how to use steps and leaps to add variety to your melody, we must first understand what they are. Below are the definitions of both:
- Steps: When the notes are all next to each other, this is called a step melody. For example, a melody composed of G A B would be considered a step melody because all of the notes are next to each other in the G Major scale. The largest interval possible with a step is a 2nd.
- Leaps: If the melody skips over notes in the scale, this is called a leap. For example, a melody composed of G B D would be considered a leap melody because all the notes aren’t next to each other in the G Major scale. The smallest interval possible with a step is a 3rd.
A well-written melody should have a good balance between leaps and steps. Using only leaps results in a melody sounding chaotic, whilst using only steps makes it boring and monotonous. The placement of your leaps is also important, as a leap denotes a sense of drama and emotion. By using leaps to highlight specific moments, we can create memorable moments in our songs.
An example of good usage of leaps in melodies in the classic tune “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.
Step 4 – Create Rhythmic Interest
Rhythm plays a vital role in melody writing. The placement of notes within the beat pattern can drastically change the feel of a melody. Beginner songwriters tend to make all of their phrases come in on beat one. This can make the melody feel cluttered, giving the feeling of all of the space being occupied.
We can liken rhythm in a melody to body language. Coming in on beat one is extremely forward body language. When we mix up phrases coming in on and after beat one, we get a sort of push-pull body language that makes our melodies dance. Varying the rhythm of our melodic phrase in different ways allows us to get more use out of the 4 notes that we’ve chosen. This way, they can be used differently in different sections of the song.
It’s also worth remembering that long melodies are often made up of smaller motifs that are repeated using different variations. A song that demonstrates this beautifully is Billie Eilish’s song “When the Party’s Over”, where the same melodic motif is moved up the scale four times in the verse.
Step 5 – Repeat the Phrase
We’re going to call our phrase the combination of our melodic motif plus its rhythmic variation. For an example, view the picture below:
What we can do is repeat the melodic phrase that we’ve come up with again. However, ensure that we vary the repeat in some way, whether that be going up the scale, moving the notes around slightly or changing the rhythm.
During this process, you may realise that you find other chords which work well with your melody, that are different to the initial 3 or 4 you picked to start out the song with. This is entirely natural because the first few chords we pick are just to establish the key and keep ourselves grounded. They by no means have to be the only chords we ever use.
Step 6 – Introduce Some Variation
Once you’ve managed to build up a fairly long melodic phrase – which you can think of as a part of a section – we should start thinking about how we can introduce variation to provide the element of surprise to our listeners. The best way to do this is to break the pattern that you’ve been using.
When you regularly create small changes to your melodic motifs, you keep your listeners interested. Great melodies are made out of a well-balanced combination of repetition and variation. The secret is to try and ensure that every melodic motif that you write slightly varies from the others in some way.
Step 7 – Write More Melodies
After writing enough melodic material for one section of a song – say a verse – you need to write more melodies for the other sections of your song such as the chorus, and bridge. One of the easiest ways to do this is to look at the contour of the melodic material you’ve created so far. Contour is just a very fancy word to describe the shape and direction of the melody.
For example, if your melody was ascending, then you could change it to be descending instead. However, a great melody doesn’t just change the contour – it also varies the starting note. You could also decide to simplify the melody instead, as some melodies can benefit greatly from restraint. After all, the key to writing great melodies isn’t complexity, but contrast.
Another important thing to think about is where the most important moment in your song is, and try to place the highest note in your song there to highlight it. You can also try to refrain from using the root note of a key in a build-up, till you need to deliver a message with a punch. This is a common strategy used when writing a pre-chorus.
Finally, remember that throughout the process of composing melodies, you don’t have to worry about your lyrics. What we’re really focusing on here is finding some nice melodies – lyrics can come later.
Conclusion: Writing Great Melodies in 7 Steps
Crafting great melodies doesn’t have to be an overwhelming or daunting process. By following these steps, you’ll be able to compose amazing melodies in a systematic and consistent manner.
If you would like more details, explanations and examples, then be sure to check out the video now.
Level up your songwriting with five radically practical exercises used by professional songwriters around the world: