Create Great Singing Melodies To Immerse Your Audience.
We all know that melody is one of the most important and immediate aspects of singing a song. It’s the part that the audience sings or hims along with. It’s the one that most intimately brings out the emotion of the lyric story. The melody also exists alongside and on top of the harmony. But that relationship can differ depending on the effect
you are trying to achieve with your song.
When we’re setting our lyrics together with the melody, there are three considerations we need to make.
• What is the length of each note?
• What is the length of the phrases?
• What is the space between the phrases?
These may seem like trivial questions, but the note length, phrase length, and phrase space will determine how your lyrics feel to the listener. Let’s start with the notes. Listen to Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” You’ll find that the verses—which are conversational in tone, and build the story of the track—generally have shorter notes. The chorus,
where the title of the track is repeated, consists of longer notes. This is no accident. When lyrics are set to longer notes, they are emphasized and are automatically more dramatic.
The melodic phrases you use for your lyric sections
can be of a standard or surprising length. Standard
two and four bar phrases will give a song a steady
feel. Surprising phrases – any other bar length – will
keep things fresh and draw the listeners’ attention.
Good songs will have a mixture of both. And those
phrases will gain additional power from the spaces
in between them. Verses will benefit from having
lyrics be more closely packed together with little
room to breathe. Choruses, on the other hand,
benefit from being drawn out and require more
space between the lyrics as a result. Once you have
the basic lyrical ideas in place for your melody, try
developing them with some repetition or present
new ideas as a contrast.
Sure, setting the lyrics to your melody is important.
But it is the interaction between melody and
harmony that will define your song. Let’s say we
already have a harmony in place, or we have a way
in mind that we want our melody to work so we’re
not thinking of melodic ideas with no context. So
let’s develop a pitch. When it comes to the pitch of
a melody, there are three approaches.
1. Melody On Chords—Where the melody
stays on a chord
2. Melody Over Chords—Where the melody is
in the key, but is only loosely related to the
3. Melody Against a Bass Line
(Counterpoint)—Where there are two
melodies and the vocal melody moves
against a bass melody
No matter what approach you take, you’re going
to start on one of the tones in the chord. Starting
from the tones will allow you to build a compelling
melody consisting of even the simplest materials
and development. The example that comes to
mind is Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a
song whose melody would resemble a straight line
if mapped out. If you want to decorate a melodic
line like this (and you might, considering how
flat it could sound), you can zig-zag between the
neighboring notes that reside right above and
below your original tone. However many chord
tones you try to base your melody on, understand
that each will have an effect, creating a distinct
• Stationary—A straight line
• Zig-zag—Decorates a straight line with a
• Ascending—Starts low and goes up
• Descending—Starts high and goes down
• Arch—Starts low, goes up and then down
• Inverted Arch—Starts high, goes down
and then back up
But say you really want to spice things up with your
melody. Counterpoint between a bass line melody
moving against the vocal melody might do the trick.
But not all bass lines are built equal. The easiest way
to determine if the bass melody would make for
good counterpoint is if it could be sung. Bass lines
that move all over the staff will be useless unless
you’re going to be scat singing. There are four kinds
of standard counterpoint: parallel, similar, oblique
and contrary. If a bass line has the same melodic
shape as the vocal line, then it is a form of parallel
counterpoint. Similar counterpoint features a bass
line and vocal melody that move in essentially the
same direction, though not as closely as parallel.
Now here’s where things get interesting; oblique
counterpoint will have either the bass or vocal line
revolve around a limited number of notes. The bass
line might stay on one note or move around in an
ostinato. The vocal line will stay in basically the
same place. If you’ve heard the opening verse of
“Stairway to Heaven” then you’ve heard oblique
counterpoint. Finally, contrary counterpoint, as its
name implies, have the bass and vocal lines moving
in opposite directions; the bass line swings down
while the vocal ascends, or vice versa.
These are just some of the basics of melodic
development. I haven’t begun going into
developing a riff or making a melody from a
mixolydian mode or in blues form. But you never
leave the building blocks. The simplest methods of
developing melody are tools you’ll be using for the
rest of your songwriting career. These methods are
the gifts that keep on giving.