Written by Bo Brusco.
A key component to any song is its melody. A musician might have lyrics on paper, a solid idea of the story they want to tell, and the emotions they want to express, but none of that will come to life until they create a melody.
Simple enough — but how do musicians come up with melodies?
For beginners, combining chords together that are in the same key is a good place to start. It may take a while to hear exactly what you want, but reworking the chord progression until it suits the expression you’re going for is a fundamental process that many musicians have used to create melodies.
Like most creative processes, though, there is more to it, and what works for some may not be preferable for everyone. Finding a melody-creating route that suits you may require some trial and error. But a good place to start is to understand what a melody is, how to find effective melodies, and where the inspiration for melodies comes from.
What Is A Melody?
A melody, in the most basic sense of the word, is a combination of pitch and duration. A good way to visualize this is to imagine the vocal lines in games like Rock Band; horizontal lines that appear at different levels (pitch) and vary in length (duration). Those are melodies.
Now, the base of a melody can vary. There are chord-based melodies, where a musician punches out a combination of chords that forms a melody. There are scale-based melodies, where a melody is composed of notes within a specific scale (like an E or C Major scale). And lastly, and not as common, there are monotone melodies, which are basically just rhythmic patterns (sometimes heard in EDM and Hip-Hop songs).
Master Class actually has an article that dives a bit deeper into the different types of melodies. For the knowledge thirsty readers, you can check out that article here.
Finding Effective Melodies
The legendary Carlos Santana said it best when he said, “There’s a melody in everything. And once you find the melody, then you connect immediately with the heart. Because sometimes, English or Spanish, Swahili, or any language gets in the way. But nothing penetrates the heart faster than the melody” (emphasis added).
It’s important to have an effective melody that connects with your listener’s heart. Before the lyrics are even sung, your audience should already know what message is being expressed just by the melody.
To create an effective melody, one must first understand the tone of the song they want to write. If it’s a dark, sad, or moody song, creating a melody that incorporates minor chords, or is even written entirely on a minor scale, will help paint that dimmer picture. If it’s a happier, poppy song, go for the major chords. (Of course, that’s just a general principle for beginners. If you’re a pro at creating melodies already, you’re probably not reading this).
Tempo is also an important factor when setting out to create a compelling melody. Sometimes (of course, not always), the difference between a sad song and an angry song is simply tempo and dynamics.
Take “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” for instance. The tempo in the original version by The Proclaimers is about 132 beats per minute (BPM), and it’s in the key of E. That faster tempo combined with the major key makes for a super poppy and upbeat tune.
However, Sleep At Last does a tasteful cover of the song, but it’s sadder, more romantic, and wistful. This change in tone is accomplished by changing some simple factors. First, the tempo is slower, clocking in at about 105 BPM. There is also a slight change in the chords, but the key remains in E (feel free to check out the exact differences on ultimate-guitar.com).
When you sit down and listen to these two versions of the same song, it’s a powerful experience to note how the same song with the same lyrics can take on two different tones simply by making little altercations to the melody.
Another great example of how tempo affects melody is a song by Brand New called “You Won’t Know.” The song begins quietly at a slower tempo, creating a sad tone. Not too long after the song begins, though, the tempo suddenly increases, and the dynamics are cranked to an 11, changing the tone from sad to angry.
Where To Find Inspiration
Ah, inspiration: something so essential yet so incalculable. The place where inspiration comes from will vary greatly from person to person. Some people can summon inspiration whenever they want, while others wait for it to find them.
Songwriters who are more narrative-driven, for example, will likely have a story in their head before their melody is created. As it plays out, the different senses at play within the story will come alive: touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound — and thus, a melody will arise as a natural extension from the story.
However, for those who have yet to find a mode of inspiration that works for them, don’t fret. Inspiration is actually something you can get better at summoning. The best way to improve your ability to receive inspiration is to increase your awareness. The best poets know this.
Jane Hirschfield noted this in her book, “Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.” Speaking of how poets find inspiration, she says:
“Each poet, in his [their] own language, states that the basic matter of poetry comes not from the self, but from the world. From Things, which will speak to us on their terms and with their own wisdom, but only when approached with our full and unselfish attention.”
This principle is universally applicable for anyone in search of inspiration. If you’re looking for melody, perhaps consider being open to melodies in places you wouldn’t have thought — in the kitchen, the laundry room, on the road, or out in the woods.
Open yourself up to everything you’re likely overlooking right now, and find the melodies right under your nose. A fun exercise could be something as simple as creating a melody for a random photo on your phone. What’s the story or expression there? How does that translate into tone and chords?
My Personal Experience
Sometimes the melody finds you first before you’ve written any words down. Now, I am not by any means a professional or popular artist. But I have a lot of songwriting experience. Like so many musicians, I can’t even count all songs I’ve written.
For me, though, and take this with a grain of salt, I usually find melodies in my emotions. I’ll be feeling some kind of way, and I’ll recognize that I am experiencing that feeling or sentiment. And then a melody erupts out of me that simply expresses how I feel.
For example, probably the only song I’ve penned that’s gotten any kind of attention is one I wrote for my old Surf-Rock band, and it’s called “Soul.” I wrote the song (guitar chords, lyrics, and vocal melody) in ten minutes. And here’s how that happened.
I thought deeply about this girl I loved at the time (RIP – I wrote this song when it was over), and I tapped into that feeling and tried to understand why. Why do I feel like this for her? What is it about her? I found a simple major chord on the guitar (C) and began straight strumming at around 130 BPM.
And then the words and melody came simultaneously: How can I resist when you’ve got so much soul?…
Ultimately, if you want inspiration for melodies, you have to actively and consistently keep yourself open to opportunities to be inspired.
Why do songs get stuck in your head? Psychologists admit, we don’t know exactly why certain songs get stuck in our heads. Some research suggests that songs with repetitive or relatable lyrics can activate the brain’s dopamine reward system. Studies have also shown that brain size and shape can affect the frequency of songs getting stuck in your head. If it seems like songs get stuck in your head all the time, that may mean your brain is bigger than most.
Why do so many pop songs use the same four chords? Although it’s true that many pop songs imitate each other, the reason why so many songs can be played using the same four chords ultimately comes down simplicity, and not wanting to overwhelm or confuse the listener. Many pop songs are written using the same time signature and usually a similar tempo and key, so even when songs don’t fit into the mold of Em, C, G and D, a confident singer can usually pitch their voice up or down to fit the song into that same key.