Songwriting Tips: Making Your Melodies Memorable, Part II

David Bawiec, Spire Contributor | June 31, 2018

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Keeping a single section of a song interesting can be tricky enough. So how do you keep your listeners’ interest for an entire song?

In Part I of “Songwriting Tips” you learned six tricks to rework the melody in your verse to keep it appealing. Today we'll look at the song as a whole and examine all the different tools you can use to make your melodies memorable.

We left off having completed an entire verse (with stand-in na-na-na lyrics). Here's what we got in the final result:

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So where to now? That's a question you'll probably ask yourself every time you write a new song.

A guiding principle to follow in a song’s melody is "contrast, contrast, contrast." There's nothing more boring than a stagnant melody. The more contrast you can create in your melody between different sections of your song, the higher the chance that your listeners will actually stick around to enjoy the whole song. Contrast and change makes things surprising, and thus intriguing because there's always the question of “what will come next?” And in songwriting that’s a good thing.

What kind of contrast should you be looking at? Every kind.

The best news is that knowing what you already wrote for one section will answer almost all of the questions regarding where you should probably go in the following ones. But what exactly should you be looking for? We’ll go step by step, looking at the different elements of the verse melody above to see how they tell us everything we need to know about how the melody wants to develop further.

1. Rhythms

The first and probably most noticeable contrast you can achieve is changing rhythm. If your verse primarily consists of short notes (as mine does) then try to fill your chorus with long held out notes. And vice versa. This will make the chorus sound different and fresh compared to what we'd heard so far, effectively attracting the listener's ear to this new change.

If your verse has pretty simple rhythms, don’t be afraid to funk things up in your chorus. Adding some slightly more complex rhythms to the melody can result in some pretty cool melodic ideas.

2. Placement

Another thing to look at is the rhythmic placement of your phrases. It sounds fancy, but it really means "where does each one of your phrases begin?"

You can hear/see that lines 1, 2, and 4 of my verse above begin on the downbeat (beat 1) of the bar. If that's the case, then to create a nice change try starting the first phrase of your chorus somewhere off of the first beat. You can start it early (before the downbeat, like a pickup), or after the downbeat (like on or around beats 2, 3, etc).

Since phrase 3 of my verse already begins before the downbeat, I'll choose to begin the first phrase of my chorus on beat 2.

3. Pitch

The third element of your melody to look at when moving onto the next section is pitch. If you're following my suggestions from the “9 Ways to Make Sure Your Song Takes Us on a Journey” article, your verse melody probably started off in your vocalist's lower-mid range. Meaning you left enough space for the pitch of the melody to grow.

Make use of that as you're entering your chorus and go higher. Singing in the higher register naturally ups the intensity, which in turn makes the ear focus on the new material more than previously.

On a side note, I'd suggest you still keep some of the highest notes for the bridge. Again, it's all about building as you move through the song.

4. Motion

A melody can consist of one of two types of motion: stepwise or leaps. Stepwise motion means that the individual notes of the melody are clustered close to each other. Like steps that you walk on. On the other hand, a melody that has leaps means that the individual consecutive pitches are far from each other, requiring a vocal jump.

Take a look at my verse above. Other than line 3, it primarily consists of stepwise motion. The notes are close to each other and none of the jumps are high. For my chorus, I may consider including some larger leaps in my melody. This will create a new type of motion compared to what I'd heard before.

Another thing to consider when it comes to melody motion is the direction in which the melody moves. Does it move upward? Downward? Up and down? Consider these things as you're making decisions about where to go next.

5. Space

When talking about space, what you’re listening for is how close together or how much empty space there is between phrases. P!nk's “Try” is a perfect example of spatial contrast between the verse and chorus. The verse has a lot of empty space and breathing room in the lead melody. Every phrase is followed by at least an entire measure of silence. Once we get to the chorus, however, the melody gets much busier, with only enough room to take a breath and a new phrase continues.

Just because you have a measure doesn’t mean you have to fill it with notes. And as the saying goes, “less is more.” Sometimes silence can be equally if not even more effective, so use it to your creative advantage.

6. Chords

This one may have a little less to do with your melody per say, but it's something that would be a part of your demo for sure, so it's worth considering. Just like repeating the same chords over and over again in the verse made things sound too repetitive and boring, the same may happen if you stick to exactly the same chords in your chorus as the ones you have in your verse.

Does that mean you can't have the same chords? Of course not. After all, there are plenty of highly successful songs that have exactly the same chord progressions (Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” or John Denver’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane”). But those songs also have lots of contrast between the sections in almost every other aspect of the melody itself, so just be considerate of that.

Where to next?

As you can see, looking at the verse told you a lot about what you did in that section and how you can change things up in the chorus. Do you need to implement contrast in all five of the aspects of your melody? Not at all. Mix and match them as you please. See how much contrast is enough and how much is too much. Find a great middle ground that makes your chorus sound interesting and memorable. Once you're happy with your chorus, try to do the same for your bridge. Maybe your song has a pre-chorus, work some contrast into that melody as well and I promise your song will already sound interesting.

Listen to some of your favorite songs for references and ideas. P!nk's “Try” has awesome motion, space and pitch contrast between the verse and chorus. Katy Perry's “Firework” has great placement and rhythmic contrast going from the verse to the pre-chorus and chorus. Dami Im's “Sound of Silence” has wonderful placement, pitch, space and chord contrast in the different sections. Adam Lambert's “Whataya Want from Me” has some neat duration, placement, pitch, motion, space, and chord contrast as you move from section to section.

So with each song, make conscious decisions as to where you will go. Look at what you've already done for ideas on where you could go moving forward. As always, good luck, and we’re excited to hear all the great songs you will write!