The Top 5 Melody Pitfalls—and How to Avoid Them
An exclusive tutorial from the renowned instructor of the BMI Nashville Songwriters’ Workshop
Many of the writers whose songs I listen to at my workshops work long and hard on their lyrics, striving to find unique, fresh ways to tell their stories and express their concepts. But they sometimes forget that we’re not writing poems, but songs—and if we hope to create songs that resonate with listeners, our lyrics need to be delivered on the wings of outstanding, memorable melodies.
It’s often easier to identify weaknesses in lyrics than in melodies. While it might be evident that a line of lyric is cliché and needs to incorporate a fresher, more original approach, it might be more challenging to diagnose the reasons why a melody fails to jump out of the proverbial pile or remain seared in the brain.
Following are some of the melody pitfalls I most often encounter—and their remedies.
1. Crafting Melodies That Sound as if They’ve Been Imposed Upon Predictable Chord Changes
Many of the songs by current pop and urban music hit-makers are crafted by creating a music track first. In these instances, a musical “bed” consisting of the keyboards, bass, drums and guitars is composed and produced prior to the melody that the vocalist will sing. A vocal melody is then crafted to work with the chord changes, beats and grooves that have been established.
While this approach to writing is not typical in country music, there are more instances of songs being created for the Nashville market by using this method. In country, Americana, roots and folk music, although a full musical track is not typically created prior to a vocal melody, chord progressions played on an acoustic guitar often precede the melody.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to write a great melody, and countless successful songs have begun with a chord progression. The problem arises when the vocal melody sounds as if it has been imposed on those chords as an afterthought.
In my workshops, I, too, often critique songs with melodies that sound as if they were created as the result of writers strumming predictable chord progressions on a guitar—then imposing melody that works perfectly fine with those chords. There’s no “rub”—no dissonance. So, you might ask, “What wrong with that?”
There may be nothing “wrong” with these melodies, but “nothing wrong” is a far cry from melodies that are unforgettable, fresh and original. No one walks down the street humming chord changes, guitar licks, drumbeats, grooves or bass lines. While these are all important components of successful songs, they aren’t enough.
Giving more attention to these components than to the melody that sits atop them is analogous to a builder spending the majority of his or her time and energy on a house’s foundation, then haphazardly slapping together the actual home. The foundation is crucial—but not more important than the house. Chord progressions, drum patterns, guitar licks and bass lines need to be paired with fresh, original, can’t-get-them-out-of-your-head melodies and rhythms for the singer to sing.
It can help to assess your melodies by singing them a capella, to be certain they stand up on their own. They should be memorable, easy to sing and should not sound as if notes are missing—or extra notes have been crammed in—to accommodate lyrics.
Remember your melody is critically important to your song’s success. Regardless of how a song is begun, when it’s finished, it needs a vocal melody that compels an artist, publisher, producer or an A&R executive to say “Yes”—and an audience to invite it into their hearts.
2. Settling for Predictable Rhythms in the Vocal Melodies
With the unprecedented amount of music available to listeners, it’s more important than ever to separate our songs from the competition. Songs with melodies that rely on stock, less-than-exceptional rhythms are unlikely to command a listener’s attention.
One of the best ways to elevate songs from “good” to “WOW” is to write vocal melodies that incorporate fresh, hooky rhythms. Taylor Swift is a master of this tool. A listen to the verse and chorus of her GRAMMY-nominated smash, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” (Taylor Swift/Max Martin/Shellback) reveals the enormous contribution of the rhythms within the vocal melody.
This technique typically includes syncopation—placing the rhythmic accent on a “weak” beat—and it can be heard in countless hits. Some great examples are: Rodney Atkins’ recording of “Take a Back Road,” (Rhett Akins/Luke Laird); Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” (Carly Rae Jepsen/Tavish Crowe); and One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” (Rami; Carl Falk; Savan Kotecha).
Including syncopation and catchy, unique rhythms that push the envelope are among the best tools you can use to help separate your songs from the competition—regardless of your musical genre.
3. Lack of Contrast
A common melodic problem is the failure to clearly differentiate each section of a song (i.e., verse, pre-chorus, chorus or bridge) from other sections. While melodic and rhythmic repetition within a given section can be the proverbial glue that helps melodies stick in the brain, in order to sustain listeners’ attention, ideally, each section should be rhythmically and melodically distinct from the parts of the song that surround it. In simple terms, you don’t want the verses to sound like the chorus, or the bridge to sound like either the verse or chorus.
There should be no doubt when the chorus begins. You can achieve this by choosing from several different tools. One of the most effective ways to announce the arrival of your chorus is to use higher notes. The chorus often includes the highest notes in the song, and in many instances, these notes appear in the first line of the chorus.
Two exceptional examples of choruses that “jump out” are Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” (Adele/Paul Epworth) and Jason Aldean’s “Fly Over States” (Neil Thrasher and Michael Dulaney).
Another way to be sure each part of a song is distinct from the song’s other components is to vary the rhythms in the vocal melodies from one section to the next. For example, if a pre-chorus is choppy and rhythmic, as a result of including a barrage of short notes (such as eighth notes), the subsequent chorus might benefit from longer notes (such as whole notes). Conversely, a verse that relies heavily on long, held-out notes might be best followed by a chorus that incorporates shorter notes for a more “rhythmic” feel.
While many pop, country and adult contemporary songs include choruses that “lift,” urban and urban-influenced pop songs often differentiate their choruses from their verses with a distinctly different rhythm—as opposed to soaring high notes.
To keep your listeners interested, be sure to vary the range and/or rhythms from one section to the next.
4. Introducing Too Many Melodic Motifs
We tend to remember that which we are exposed to over and over again—and this certainly applies to melodies. If you want your melodies to stick in the brain, repetition, repetition and repetition are the top three ways to achieve this. Your listeners can’t latch onto a melody and remember it if it keeps changing.
When I critique work from developing writers, I sometimes hear songs that establish a melody (for example, a 2-bar motif)—then bring in a new melody, and yet another melody—all within an eight-bar section. But when I analyze successful songs in various genres, I typically find that within any given section of a song (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge) there are rarely more than two distinct melodic concepts.
For an example of a song that incorporates this tool, listen to Norah Jones’ GRAMMY-winning “Don’t Know Why” (Jesse Harris). You’ll notice that the verse is comprised of a 4-bar “call and response” melodic motif. The rhythm established in the first two bars is repeated in the second two bars. This 4-bar melody is heard four times; there is no additional melody introduced in the verse. The bridge also uses this tool by establishing a 4-bar melodic phrase—then repeating it.
Another excellent example of incorporating repetition by limiting the number of melodic ideas within each section can be heard in the chorus of One Direction’s career-breaking song, “What Makes You Beautiful” (Rami; Carl Falk; Savan Kotecha). The chorus is comprised of a 2-bar melodic phrase that is heard three times. It is followed by the 2-bar phrase that accompanies the title. This fourth phrase is a different melody and rhythm—thereby distinguishing the title from the lines surrounding it. This eight-bar melody is then repeated. With the exception of one line, every line of the chorus lyric contains the identical number of syllables, allowing the melody writer to repeat the same rhythm, and almost the same melody.
Listen to your favorite songs and you’ll likely hear the same rhythms and melodies repeated over and over within each section. By incorporating this technique into your work, you can write melodies that listeners can’t forget.
5. Failure to Rewrite Melodies
What’s the chance that the very first melody that pops into your head is such perfection that you couldn’t possibly improve even one note or one chord— even if your entire career were riding on doing so? Our careers are riding on composing songs that include melodies that are not just “good”—but exceptional. Your melodies need to edge out those written by the writers and artists who top the charts— the song crafters who have their fingers on the pulse of the current music scene.
To unearth the very best melodies you’re capable of, challenge yourself to rewrite each verse and chorus at least three times. You might craft alternate melodies by placing emphases on different syllables, words or combinations of words. For example, if your title is “I Know I Can Write a Hit,” you could emphasize the words in boldface (below) by holding them out longer or assigning them higher notes:
I KNOW – I Can Write a Hit
I – KNOW – I Can Write a Hit
I Know I CAN – Write a Hit
I Know I Can WRITE a Hit
I Know I Can WRITE a HIT
Explore different note choices—try ascending or descending notes; try different rhythms within the vocal melody—including long, legato notes and choppier rhythms. You might also see how your melody works at different tempos.
Yet another way to craft alternate melodies is to repeat some of your syllables, words or combinations of words. For example:
I Know—I Know – I Can Write a Hit
Know I Can—I Can—I Can Write a Hit
You might also try using nonsense syllables to create an added melodic hook. For example:
Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh – I Know I Can Write a Hit
I Know EYE—EE-EYE-EE—EYE Can Write a Hit
For good examples of this tool being used in various genres, listen to Feist’s “1234” (Feist/Sally Seltmann), Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” (Stewart/Nash/Harrell/Beyoncé) and Jake Owen’s “Barefoot Bluejean Night” (Paslay/Altman/Sawchuk).
You can also try a variety of different chords to accompany your melodies. Sometimes, a new way of harmonizing your melody can be just the ticket it needs to bring it to life.
In some instances, the very first melody that flows from you will indeed capture the magic—but you can’t be certain of that until you’ve tried to make it even stronger. After you’ve explored a variety of melodies you can always go back to your first melody—if that’s the one you prefer.
Remember: If you don’t give the decision-makers and your listeners a reason to choose your songs over the competition—they won’t. Rewrite your melodies until they are distinctive, fresh and instantly memorable. Push the creative envelope while remaining consistent with the genres you’re targeting. Don’t settle for less than your very best. Your career is riding on it.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (all publishing by Billboard Books), and he has produced a series of instructional songwriting audio CDs. His songs are on albums that have sold more than 50 million copies, and he is among the few writers to ever have his songs on the pop, R&B, and country charts all at the same time. Jason’s songs have been recorded by diverse artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, and country music stars including the Oak Ridge Boys, John Berry (earning a BMI Million-Air Award for exceeding one million airplays), and Collin Raye (6 cuts). He most recently had two top 10 hits in Europe with Dutch star, BYentl, and his songs have been included in top television shows including “Scrubs,” “Friday Night Lights,” “The Guiding Light,” Disney’s “Kim Possible,” and “the Miss America Pageant.”
In addition to developing and teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters Workshop, Blume has presented master classes at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney), and in Ireland, Scandinavia, Australia, Canada, Bermuda, Jamaica, and throughout the U.S., in addition to co-leading the Nashville Songwriters Association’s annual song camps. His latest book, This Business of Songwriting, Revised 2nd Edition has just been released and is available at www.jasonblume.com, with e-books available at Amazon.com.
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