The elusive melody

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I want to write one more post about the Composers Symposium I went to last week because there is another thing that made a big impression on me: how difficult it is to write a good melody.

Melody writing is hard because frankly there are really not many solid rules. It is not like the harmony stuff I teach where formulas come into play. Outside of a few musicians that discuss it and a few books here and there, there is no real place to go to find out what makes a good melody. I have started asking writers I respect how to write melodies and to date, I have mostly gotten shrugs. In some respects, the ability to write melodies is one of those things that you either seem to have or not have.

On the panel last week, there were a few writers that are excellent tune writers and they were giving their opinions on the melodies of the songs being presented. However, again, they were not following hard and fast rules but rather seemed to be judging from the perspective of instinct. They know melodies because they have written thousands of melodies. They do look at a lot of technical things including the range, the rhythm, and the intervals but overall, they just seem to have a sixth sense as to whether a melody is memorable or not and whether it is likely to be singable or not.

I listened to the songs being presented and for the most part, I found the tunes pleasant but not memorable. Once in a while, one would stand out but not that many. But on the last day, a writer presented a new song and you could literally feel the energy in the room change because everyone in there knew that we were listening to a hit melody. Why that song is a hit melody is not easy to quantify but it is going to be a hit when it is published next year.

Here is the thing I want you to catch though. The woman presenting that song also wrote the song that is on the top of the charts this year (meaning she wrote it last year). That is not coincidence and is not luck. She wrote a great song again simply because she is a great writer who has a lot of experience writing.

I guess writing a melody is sort of like playing soccer. Basically anyone can play soccer after a few minutes of instruction; in fact, two year olds play soccer these days. But on the other hand, that does not mean they play soccer well. Just because the barrier to entry is low does not negate the reality that real soccer players have to develop some serious skills. Likewise, any budding musician can doodle out a melody but it is sort of unfeasible to expect musicians to come up with great melodies after a few years of playing in a garage band.

I am not very interested in writing choral music but even when arranging already-written songs, in introductions and interludes, the ability to write melodies is important. So, I am on a quest to learn the elusive art of melodies too. The process is frustrating because the path is so unmarked, but slowly I am starting to learn what to do and what not to do.