Tips on How to Write a Song Melody

by Steven J. Miller
You should always keep vocal limitations in mind when writing a melody.

You should always keep vocal limitations in mind when writing a melody.

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Harmonious melodies follow basic principles of voice leading that are essential for good songwriting. The principles of voice leading, and the basic concepts of combining several musical lines into one cohesive composition, have guided composers of Western music for centuries. Applying these concepts loosely can help songwriters and composers improve their melodies. Regardless of the style of music you write, following some basic voice leading guidelines will make your song easier to sing and more effective.

Stepwise Motion

One principle of voice leading, that is still followed by modern composers and songwriters, is the concept of stepwise motion. Melodies should consist primarily of stepwise motion; this helps to give form to the melody and prevent it from becoming too ambiguous, as melodies that skip and leap too often tend to meander and lose their focus. Stepwise motion helps to give the melody a clear direction and makes it easier for a vocalist to sing your music, as vocal lines that skip all over the place can be confusing and hard to sing.

Skips and Leaps

Skips and leaps have specific definitions: A skip occurs when you skip one note, while leaps occur when you skip over more than one note in the melody. Composers use skips when necessary, and usually "counter" the skip by moving in stepwise motion in the opposite direction of the skip. The same guideline goes for leaps, except that leaps must occur even more sparingly (unless the leap is an interval of an octave). Leaps don't have to resolve stepwise, but should resolve in the opposite direction with an interval smaller than the initial leap. Skips are relatively easy to sing, but leaps present difficulties for the singer.

Types of Motion

Songwriters know there are four types of motion in music between the melody and harmony: contrary, oblique, similar and parallel. Contrary motion involves the melody moving in a different direction from other parts, oblique motion involves one part moving and the other staying still, similar motion occurs when two lines move in the same direction but in different intervals and parallel motion is identical to similar motion except the intervals between the voices stay the same. Of these types, the only one to studiously avoid is parallel motion, as it creates a false sense of cadence (ending) and parallel lines minimize the independence of the melodic line from the other parts. To create clear melodies, avoid using parallel motion.

Musical Apex

The final issue that good songwriters keep in mind is the apex, or highest point, of the piece. There should be one unique high point in each melody as well as a single high point in the entire piece. Song melodies that follow this guideline have melodies with direction and a sense of reaching towards a goal. Choosing one high point for the piece and moving towards it gives the piece a sense of purpose and completion. The high point should occur at the most dramatic, and often loudest, part of the piece as well.

References

  • "Study of Counterpoint: From Johann Joseph Fux's Gradus Ad Parnassum"; Johann Joseph Fux; 1965
  • "Elements of Music Composition"; Kevin Ure; 2010

About the Author

Steven Miller graduated with a master's degree in 2010. He writes for several companies including Lowe's and IBM. He also works with local schools to create community gardens and learn environmentally responsible gardening. An avid gardener for 15 years, his experience includes organic gardening, ornamental plants and do-it-yourself home projects.

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