Melody writing can be a make or break aspect of your songwriting. A weak lyric doesn’t seem to hold back a strong melody like a weak melody can hold back a strong lyric. Ideally you want both, plus a really strong harmonic progression together with an established song structure or form, to create a meaningful song. So if melody writing is that important and is arguably the most important aspect of your song, how do you learn it? And how do you become really good at it?
That’s a question I am asked over and over by students, at songwriting clubs, Guilds, Meetups, and Workshops, but before I answer it directly, I’d like to share with you an observation I’ve made over the years. The songwriters that I have met who’s greatest strength is their melody writing ability have almost all had extensive experience singing cover songs. Why do you think that might be? Well, it’s my belief that usually the kinds of songs that performers play at gigs are the ones their fans most want to hear. That means the songs cover singers sing tend to be the most popular songs in their genre. I also believe that there is a general correlation between a song being popular and it being well written. That means these cover song singers have spent an important part of their development singing the best written songs by the master songwriters of their generation.
So why might that be important? The brain has an aspect to it that is very similar to muscle memory. If you were to learn a series of dance moves, after a good amount of repetition your body would just tend to move in that way. It would feel natural. It would become a natural movement that felt in alignment with your body’s own way of moving. When you sing great, well-written songs, your brain develops a kind of pathway to those types of relationships. You have a sense that those combinations of notes just “feel” right, and soon, by a kind of musical osmosis, you begin to construct melodies using the principles that you’ve been singing all along without even being aware of it.
It is a very consistent experience for me to hear an artist perform and then say to them something like, “you spent a lot of time listening to and singing Jason Mraz songs, didn’t you?” When the performer asks me how I knew that, I share with them that Jason Mraz has a very distinct design to his melodies and by investing so much time during their development, they had acquired that approach to melody writing. So I jokingly recommend that you be careful of whose songs you sing. You will be unconsciously assimilating their approach to melodic design.
The most important aspect for writing good melodies comes from the foundations of music theory. It is important to understand that music theory follows rather than leads. What that means is that across the history of music, a genius composer will write in a certain way, and a whole body of analysis will surface about how exactly that composer accomplished their specific effect. The foundations of music theory take you through musical history from Bach to present day, although most of the university music educations are steeped in the classical literature.
Because it can be somewhat tedious to wade through the enormity of all the music theory from the classical literature, it can be a bit of a superficial shortcut to sing a lot of Pop, Rock, Alternative, Folk, Country, R & B, and Jazz songs and learn the feel of those song’s melody structures through osmosis. It’s true you will not know whether notes you are singing are harmonic or non-harmonic tones, or whether you just sang an appoggiatura, or used upper or lower neighbors or a passing tone, but you will acquire a sense of rightness about the movement of melody in the songs you write. The broader the range of music artists that you “cover,” the more variations of good melody writing you will internalize.
My initial recommendation to people who want to become good songwriters is that even if you don’t consider yourself a great vocalist, learn a massive catalog of hit songs across all genres and sing them regularly. You’ll find that your brain will develop appropriate pathways that will include the creative implementation of sequences and patterns that you have sung.
If you want to accelerate your melody writing development, I would love to work with you as a private songwriting student at My Songwriting Coach.