What makes a melody good or bad?

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Disclaimer: This post consists of nothing more than my opinions.  Anything I say should not be construed as making a moral judgment about a piece of music.  The fact that I do not like a particular melody does not mean I think the melody is immoral or unsuitable for church.

I recently played at a piece of church music and it inspired me to write about the difference between a good melody and a bad one.

Let me describe the piece first.  It is a modern song with a simple verse/chorus form (no bridge).  The verse is 8 bars and chorus is 8 bars. It is fairly rhythmic (syncopated).  I am not going to discuss the harmony in the song at all because it is unimportant to this discussion.

Here is a breakdown of the melody

Bar 1-4: A simple 4-note melody that lasts for 1 bar is repeated 4 times in exactly the same way.
Bars 5-8: A more sophisticated 7-note melody that lasts 2 bars is repeated 2 times in exactly the same way.

Bars 1-4: A 5-note melody
Bars 5-8: A slight variation of bars 1-4

As you can see, there is a lot of repetition.  Before I go further, let me give you my short perspective on repetition in a melody:

* Repetition is a good thing.
* Repetition cannot be the only thing.
* Repetition must be developed.

Before we discuss how this song follows these rules, I want to talk about 3 other pieces.  First, let’s look at “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  I chose this song because it only uses four notes and those notes happen to the same four notes used in the first four bars of the song I am contrasting it to.


Note how this melody uses repetition.  The first two bars of each 4 bar phrase are identical.  However, see how the second two bars in each phrase are different?  That represents development of a melodic idea.  The song starts with a simple 4 bar phrase.  That phrase is then repeated, but embellished and changed.

Therefore, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is a good example of a simple song that follows my three rules of repetition.  And by the way, there is nothing wrong with simple songs when they are written well.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which starts with a simple 4 note phrase that is repeated again using different notes:


Most of you have heard the piece.  What you probably recognize is that the piece is full of repetition even though it initially does not sound that way to a casual listener.  That opening phrase is repeated in numerous ways over the course of the piece, but is developed in a masterful way.  The repetition ties everything together but the development makes the piece sound almost like it is not repetitious at all.

By the way, the 4-note melodic idea of this piece does not always use the same notes but the idea of playing three notes and then playing a fourth note down a third is repeated over and over.  That same technique is used in the next piece I want to discuss.

When I think of hymns that have great melodies, the first one that comes to mind is “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”  Here is the melody line.  Note how there is a great balance of repetition and development.  It would be a good exercise to go through and circle all of the developed repetition you find.


For one example of good development, note the start of the chorus (bar 17).  See how the first two bars contain a melodic idea that is repeated with different notes in the next two bars?  That is what I was just referring to in the Beethoven piece.  And by the way, doing this allows for the introduction of more interesting harmony.

In comparison to “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, Beethoven’s Fifth and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” can you understand why I consider the melody of the modern song I first discussed to be weak?  It consists almost entirely of repetition (too much repetition), but no significant development takes place.

I am not anti-modern music, but the lack of skill in crafting melodies is a big reason why most church music written today disappears almost as soon as it is published.  And it is unfortunate that writers try to compensate for woeful melodies by making them more rhythmic.

I like rhythm and I think a lot of church music needs more rhythm.  But there are two problems with loading up songs with rhythm and little else.  First, most of a congregation cannot sing that kind of music.  Second, regardless of how sophisticated the rhythm is, it will not make up for a badly crafted melody.

Now, I want to say again that my lack of enthusiasm for the first piece of music does not mean I think it is not appropriate or wrong or anything else.  If there is one thing that drives me crazy, it is when some elevate their opinions about these kinds of things to a level of morality or spirituality.

I also acknowledge that you can develop a melody in more ways than just changing the notes by using dynamics, articulation and other things.  Sometimes, the performer can make a bad melody good.  All of us have seen that happen before.

Where do you go to find music with good melodies? I would step outside church music to a large extent but the classical composers were masters of this concept as were many of the great jazz musicians in the past century.

In general, I just want to emphasize that writing a melody is a skill. People without musical training might actually write a good one, but the chances are not great.  Genius really does stand out.