Whether you’re an aspiring songwriter or simply someone who wants to make a great tune for a friend’s birthday, you’ll have to know how to come up with a great melody. What makes a melody memorable and enjoyable, and what steps can you take to write a melody of your own?
Even if you are a total beginner, you can get started with writing a good melody — and here, we’ll be taking a look at the steps you need to take to make it happen!
Basics of Writing a Melody
We’re going right back to basics, so we’ll have to define what a melody is, first. It’s pretty simple — a melody is a series of musical notes that are designed to convey a particular mood and feeling. That’s to say, a melody is a musical sequence that works well, containing notes that make up a single whole together.
Look at it like this — if the notes are your building blocks, the melody would be your foundation. Once finished, a melody can be sung or played on any musical instrument. Those elements are your decorative elements; the things that make your house a home.
Melodies can range from very simple to incredibly complex. Either way, melodies feature four main components:
- Pitch — In plain English, most people would describe the pitch as high or low notes. In music theory, it would refer to specific frequencies. When you are writing a melody, you will have to work with both high and low notes to make it great.
- Duration — This concept deals with the duration of the note, as well as the time that passes between two notes within a melody. Like the pitch, it plays a critical role in determining the final result of your melody. This can also be called tempo, and may vary throughout the melody.
- Range — The range is the difference between the highest and lowest note within your melody.
- Contour — This technical term describes the shape of your melody on your sheet music. Your melody may move step wise, for example, or it may feature bold leaps. The contour of a melody can speak volumes about the kinds of emotions it is conveying.
Just in case you still have no idea what a melody is, we can illustrate the idea with a few well-known examples. Happy Birthday and Mary Had a Little Lamb are often held up as examples of melodies, which may lead some people to incorrectly believe that only simple tunes that are usually sung, rather than played, constitute melodies. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up are also melodies.
Humans are inherently musical creatures, and almost everyone has hummed a melody before. As you’re driving to work, cleaning your bathroom, or going for a mid-afternoon walk in the woods, you may even accidentally make melodies of your own — musical patterns that spontaneously emerge from your mind, often to disappear just as quickly.
Melody vs Song: What’s the Difference?
That brings us to an obvious question — what exactly is the difference between a song and a melody? A song can be defined, essentially, as a melody with sung lyrics. A melody is the musical composition on which the song rests, and musical compositions without lyrics are also melodies.
You maintain the melody whether you are playing it on a single instrument like a guitar, piano, or violin, in a full orchestra, or you’re just singing or even humming or whistling it.
Melody vs Beat: What’s the Difference?
A beat is a rhythm that has some elements in common with a melody, but relates to the percussive components. A beat can be a part of a melody, but is not a melody on its own. Beat boxing can, for instance, be powerful on its own — but it wouldn’t be called a melody. If you’re beat boxing while your friend sings, however, you’re already inevitably working with a melody.
Examples of Common Types of Melodies
Before you attempt to write your own melody, it can be helpful to learn about the most commonly used types of melodies.
Chord-based melodies are centered around chord changes. Chords are harmonic pitches that the listener experiences as if they are being played at the same time, and when you combine multiple chords, you have a chord progression. This type of melody might be written by someone who is playing around on their guitar. As the writer discovers their chords, and chord progressions, they gradually develop a melody.
Scale-based melodies are different — they are made up of musical notes within a particular key. Seven, out of a total of 12, notes are usually used in a major or minor scale. Some minor scales even have more notes. However, you do not need to stick to this formula to create a great melody that sticks, and pop music often contains just five notes in a scale.
Monotone melodies, which — as the name suggests — contain just the one tone, are also possible, especially in Electronic Dance Music. Here, they usually represent a specific section of the melody, rather than the entire melody.
Melodies can further be defined according to their progression. Some melodies are ascending, which means that the tone and frequency will rise. Others are descending, in which case the pitch and frequency go down.
How to Write a Melody
Ready to dig your heels in? Great. Each songwriter — or just melody writer, as the case may be — has their own unique process. We won’t try to present you with a step-by-step guide on how to write a melody, simply because you can jump into your personal creative process at pretty much any of the following stages.
Do you already have some inspiration? Great! Use that to push yourself further.
Pick Your Instrument
This will probably be an instrument you know how to play. Don’t play an instrument? That’s OK, too. Your voice can absolutely be an instrument. If you do play, or you have a friend who does (or even better, multiple who play different instruments, and who can work together), keep in mind that not every melody works equally well with all instruments, and use that fact to your advantage.
Choose a Key or Scale
Choosing a key can be a critical step in writing a melody that works — one that sounds right. There are 12 major, and 12 minor, keys, and committing to one will narrow your options down. As you decide on the key for your melody, take your own vocal abilities (or those of the person or people who will be singing your melody) into account. Also keep in mind that the key you choose will influence how challenging the chords may be for you.
Come up with Some Chords — Don’t Forget to Improvise!
Here, we are definitely picturing you sitting in your bedroom, or even in the park, with your guitar, harmonica, or whatever other instrument you use. Play around. Lean into the magic. As chord progressions naturally appear, you’ll have the start of a melody. If it’s not any good, keep playing until you wind up with something that is.
Watch out, though! It’s all too easy for creative folks to suddenly find something truly wonderful in the moment, only to lose their mental grip on the beginnings of a melody. Think about it — it’s happened to you before, right? As you’re humming along in the shower, you stumble on a melody that actually sounds surprisingly decent. By the time you’re dressed, you’ve totally forgotten it.
Avoid this special type of frustration by recording yourself as you’re improvising. If nothing you did is worth keeping, you can delete it later. But if you hit the musical jackpot, you won’t risk losing your progress.
Start with Writing the Chorus Melody
Your chorus melody is one of the most essential parts of your composition, and you could easily argue that your entire melody rests on it. For one, it’s clear that nothing else about your melody will be work if the chorus is off.
Starting by writing the chorus melody is, therefore, a common choice. Once you have that in place, you can methodically consider what notes will work in conjunction with the chorus melody, to support it and give it the focus it deserves.
Expanding on What You Have
So, you already have a short progression that you’re happy with, but you have no idea how to expand it into a complete melody? Take the notes you already have, and try to see if changing them slightly could expand your melody into a finished work. Change the rhythm, too. Even just one different note can add a completely new accent.
Similarly, you may have the beginnings of two great melodies in your head — and, hopefully, written down as sheet music. You might never have thought that they could work together, but give it some further consideration. You might be surprised.
Making two distinctly different melody together, at once, layer on top of one another, is known as counterpoint in music theory — and it can result in refreshing melodies. To see this in action, have a look at any of the Fat Rat’s EDM tracks; no matter what you personally think about this music, you’ll agree that the technique leads to refreshing and uniquely catchy melodies.
Helpful Tips for Writing Your Own Melody
Writing a melody is a creative process, and while creativity can be nurtured, it cannot be forced. If you’re completely new to writing melodies, you won’t yet have developed a creative flow, or a set of rituals to get you in the mood. Similarly, you might not be aware of important technical tips.
If you need inspiration, try:
- Listening to your favorite music of all time. Allow the melodies you hear to percolate, and come back to think about what makes them so great.
- “Steal” elements from existing melodies, but in doing so, always make sure to alter them. This may be beats, scales, or leaps, for instance. As you do this, you are bound to gain useful insights that can take you to a new level.
- Singing nonsense words as you try to come up with a melody. This common technique completely frees you from the idea that you have to create lyrics while you are writing a melody. Worry about that later; for now, just see if the melody sounds right.
- Using an online melody generator. If you wanted to write your own melody, you can use the inspiration to alter it until it’s truly yours. If you really just wanted to write a song you can sing, and the lyrics are the most important part to you, this process can even lead you straight to your final product!
If you’re not feeling creative at all, try:
- Making sure that you get enough sleep, have a decent diet, and have taken self-care steps like having a nice bath and petting your cat. Nobody can function optimally if they’re not looking after themselves.
- Immersing yourself in the subject of your melody. Are you writing a melody for a love song? Allow all your emotions about the person you’re in love with to flow freely, and maybe look at pictures of them, or imagine doing something nice together. Are you writing about your neighborhood? Great; go walk around it, and observe the environment and people closely. You get the idea — melodies evoke feelings, and getting yourself in a state where you can feel the feelings you want to evoke can be the best way to find the right melody.
- Walking away from it all. If you’ve been hard at work on writing your melody for hours now, and you’re getting frustrated, that’s a good sign that you need to put some distance between yourself and the work. Come back later in a more relaxed state.
If you’re looking for some technical tips, you could try:
- Moving step wise, by adding a note or half note to your previous note. This classic technique will help you progress.
- Making sure that you include a high note in your melody.
- Experimenting with more contrast between your chorus melody and your verses.
What should I do if I’m good at writing lyrics but I don’t know how to play any instruments?
You could consider asking a musician in your life to help you out. You can also try learning to play an instrument yourself — an acoustic guitar is among one of the easiest instruments to learn. There are plenty of free resources to help you get started.
How can I get better at writing melodies?
When you’re trying to get better at anything, practice and consistency are the keys! Don’t be frustrated if your first melody isn’t a masterpiece — it takes time!
How long should a melody be?
That is completely up to you! As a beginner, you might want to start out with shorter melodies and later progress to longer ones. The typical length of a pop song is three to five minutes, so you may want to stuck with that.