Melody is everything. Sure, harmony is important too, as are groove, tempo, and time signature. All of these are important, but melody trumps them all. Melody tells the story, transmits the emotion, guides us on our journey. Without melody, we can vamp, and we can jam… but when melody is added, we have a song!
Technically, melody is a combination of pitch, rhythm and direction, either sung or played by an instrument or combination of instruments. But really, melody is our doorway into music. It’s the voice that speaks directly to our hearts and helps us access feeling in a way that nothing else can. Remember, a good melody can say many different things, depending on the harmony it is paired with, the tempo, and rhythm employed.
There are no hard and fast rules to good melody writing, but for me, the best way to see if I’m on the right track is to sing. In most situations, if I can’t sing a melody I’m writing, then it’s not there yet. A melody needs to have space to breath, just like a sung melody. The direction changes should feel natural and lyrical. When I sing, I have to take breaths, so I naturally come up with phrases that have shapes to them, with motion, space and direction changes. When I sing, I engage my body, and that’s where the stuff is, my friends. My mind is really good at thinking, but my body is where the feeling is. So sing! Let go and let the music inside come out!
Remember that simple is always the best place to start when crafting melodies. Sometimes it stays simple, and sometimes it gets more complicated, but a great melody is a memorable melody, one we keep singing long after the record has finished playing.
Here are some examples of melodies with impact. I hope they help you create ones of your own.
Ex. 1 illustrates melody in a musical theatre setting, where melody is literally the vehicle in which the lyrical story is told. It is responsible for the emotion of any given moment in the show. Notice that even though there are no lyrics, the melody still transmits the drama of the moment. There is hope, yearning, triumph, and surprise.
Ex. 2 illustrates melody in a jazz setting, where it comes heavily into play in improvisation. Here, rhythm and direction become even more important, as a way for the soloist to create melodic questions and then find ways to answer them.
Ex. 3 shows how a melody functions in a slow, rubato ballad setting, using the simplest harmonic/rhythmic setting that supports the melodic arc.
Ex. 4 gets much more rhythmic and harmonically challenging in this uptempo Latin setting. But the melody still tells its own unique story.
Matt Rollings is an acclaimed keyboardist, composer and producer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Rollings has performed on countless recordings and onstage with artists like Lyle Lovett, Mark Kopfler, and Mavis Staples. He won a Grammy Award in 2017 for co-producing Willie Nelson's album of George Gershwin songs entitled Summertime. Find out more at mattrollings.com