Writing songs can be a lot of fun, but it isn't easy. You're balancing a lot: expressing your emotions, telling a unique story, and keeping your listeners engaged—all while making sure that you're not plagiarizing an existing song.
Some songs may come to you easily, while others may take months or even years of rewriting to become what they want to be. So how do you keep your melody interesting when the creative juices aren't flowing?
Through these songwriting tips, I will take a simple melodic motif and show you six different ways you can alter it to turn it into an interesting melody for your verse.
I'm going to start off with a 2-bar motif. This could be anything you like. You can make it as easy or as complex as you please. Since I will be using this motif to build my verse on it, I'm going to start with something pretty simple for now.
Notice that the pitches I chose are primarily in the lower-/mid-register of a male singer. And there was a specific reason why I decided to do this. Consider this: if you're going on a first date you probably won't go down on one knee and propose. If you bust out all the high notes at the very beginning of your song, where will you go later? Plan for the journey ahead and leave the high money notes for your bridge.
Here we start out somewhere in the low-mid register, leaving the vocalist and the melody plenty of room to grow and move upward as the song progresses.
Where to next? Well, let's see what we can do to my motif to make it more interesting.
1. Different note durations
If you look at my motif, currently it consists of nothing but chord tones (notes that belong to the current chord). They are also all straight quarter notes. That seems a little robotic to me. When you talk, you don't talk in a steady rhythm. Some words are said faster, others slower. Your melodies should do the same. So let's take a look at changing up a couple rhythms here and there to make the melody feel a little less static and patterned.
Notice that I used a couple neighbor tones (NT) and passing tones (PT) to enhance my melody.
Neighbor tones are notes that are directly above or below a chord tone (CT). They tend to want to resolve back to the chord tone that they came from.
Passing tones, on the other hand, are one or more notes that connect two different chord tones. Think of them like passing stones to get from point A to B.
Now that I have a slightly more interesting motif, I can begin building a verse out of it. I will want my verse to be eight bars in length. So let's see how I take it through the different motions to develop this short idea into a full-fledged melody for my song.
One of the easiest ways to make a melody memorable is to repeat it. The more you repeat an idea the more likely it will be that your listeners will be able to remember the melody after the song is done.
So let's go ahead and repeat my motif twice.
We now have a four-bar phrase that works pretty well.
3. Let them breathe
Do yourself a favor and sing the above melody. Don't hum it, but actually sing it out loud. You can do it on any syllable you please, like la-la or na-na. And try to sing it exactly as we have it written right now.
How did that feel? Did you notice that the closer you were getting to the end the more you were starting to lose steam? The reason for that is that our melody is currently a continuous unending stream of notes. We forgot to build in rests for the singer.
Rests play two roles. First, they allow the singer to breath. Secondly, rests act like commas and periods (and other punctuation marks) in your sentences. Take a look at and sing our current melody again. Doesn't it sound like a run-on sentence?
Adding rests into it will allow us to subdivide it into nice phrases (individual sentences). Although I love those triplets, I will alter the endings of bars 2 and 4 to allow the addition of some rests.
Now try singing that. That's much better. We finally have a clear distinction between when one phrase ends and another one begins. What's particularly interesting is that suddenly this creates a "question-answer" kind of effect. The first phrase asks a question with an expectation for an answer, the second one delivers the answer.
4. More repetition or new ideas?
We finally have a nice 4-bar melody happening. Since repeating it worked so nicely, let's go ahead and repeat it all again, so we get a total of four phrases.
Sing it through. How did it sound? You may have noticed that somehow now the melody got predictable and stale. Why? Constantly repeating an idea over and over again has its pitfalls as well. If you repeat something too many times, it can become nauseating and really boring.
So how should you proceed? On one hand, if you don't repeat any melodic ideas, your listeners may think that your music is absolutely random and you have no idea what you're doing. On the other hand, If you repeat too much, your song will sound like it's stuck on a loop, the singer will seem more like a robot than a genuine person sharing a story, and ultimately you risk your listeners getting bored, annoyed, and worse of all, skipping your song.
As you can see, you need to find the right balance between introducing new ideas and repeating the ones that have already been established.
So now sing the eight-bar melody once again, this time specifically listening for the exact moment where you wish the melody would change. When do you get bored?
Odds are you said measure five. And that's where I would've hoped that the melody would finally change. How much change you introduce is up to you, but as long as you're introducing some new idea your listeners will thank you for it.
5. New chords
One of the best songwriting tips and easiest way is to change things up is to alter the underlying chords. Following that thought, I'm going to change the chords in that third phrase (bars 5 and 6) as well as the final chord of our verse (bar 8).
Take a listen to how that changes the feeling of that third phrase. It's a nice departure from what started to sound "too familiar" into something ever so slightly new. It's not a major shift, but it's enough to make us notice it.
6. New melodic ideas
If you're like me, just changing the chords didn't really hit home yet. I want more of a change in that third phrase. So I'm going to follow my instincts and change the melody in bar five and six.
Since up until this point I've primarily kept the melody's movement quite minimal, this will be a nice place to expand the motion a little bit more. I'll add a couple of leaps (direct jumps from one note to another, bypassing the tones in-between) and introduce a little more motion to the melody. Also, since so far each phrase begins on the downbeat (beat one of a measure), I'll use the extra space we created for the rests to start that third phrase before the downbeat (like a pickup bar), which should create a nice contrast to what we've heard up until that point.
I think we've got it! We have turned a little motif into an interesting four-phrase eight-bar melody for a verse.
Our first phrase establishes the melody
Our second phrase repeats it
The moment people could possibly get bored with another repetition, the third phrases surprises them with new chords and a new melodic idea
Finally, for phrase four, we return to the basics that we had established before. Coming back to the familiar here makes it feel like we're kind of coming home
Now that I’m happy with the melody of my verse it’s time to beef up the demo and replace that scratch piano track with a better-sounding backing track. Here’s the finished version, sung by William Martinez:
Note: I just showed you one of many ways of writing/re-writing this piece. You could have (and probably would have) taken it in a completely different direction yourself. In fact, if I came back to this tomorrow, I'd probably end up doing things differently as well. That's the beauty of songwriting, each one of us brings our own uniqueness into our music.
One of the most important rules of songwriting is that true songwriting isn't writing. It's re-writing. So don't be afraid of going back, changing things and altering them to make them work better and better.
This completes part one of this tutorial. We've taken a short melodic motif and turned it into a full-fledged verse. But where do you take it next? Part II will explore just that. We'll pick up where we left off and look at the different techniques you can use to build an interesting pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge, keeping each section sounding unique. We'll use rhythms, pitch, melodic motion, and phrase lengths to create contrast between each of the sections. So keep a look out for Part II, coming soon.