The importance of melody can’t be understated. Melodies are the part of music that we carry with us, what we use to craft traditions and beckon joy. Without melodies, we wouldn’t have many folk stories passed on through song, or national anthems that define cultures. Music simply wouldn’t speak without it.
And yet, it’s what many musicians struggle with the most. A bad melody can destroy a song, and even worse, a mediocre melody can get forgotten forever. So where do you begin with such a principal aspect of songwriting?
A great melody should be memorable, engaging, and lift your ear above the music. Listen to some of the most iconic melodies of all time—John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”—and you’ll find that each melody shares four things in common. With the help of a guided example, let’s break down how to write a melody for your chord progression.
A great place to begin learning how to write a melody is the pentatonic scale. Found in nearly every style of music, the pentatonic scale is a scale constructed from five of the seven notes in a major/minor scale. It summarizes the scale succinctly without subtracting too much color and makes whittling down your note options much easier.
The strong points in the pentatonic scale are the tonic, third, and fifth. These make excellent starting points for melodies because of their relationship to the chord they represent. Songs like “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Sweet Child of Mine” primarily use the tonic, third, and fifth in their choruses.
Let’s build a melody from the two bar repeating chord progression below in the key of G minor. The chords are G minor / Bb major / Eb major / C minor. The pentatonic scale that we’ll base our melody on is G (tonic), Bb (minor third), C (fourth), D (fifth), and F (minor seventh). The following examples were all recorded using Spire Studio.