A five step guide by 8thModeMusic on how to make a melody memorable.
A melody can be thought of as the focus of a piece – the part you sing, hum or whistle along with. As composers and producers, we want that focus to be memorable and stay with listeners so that they’re singing, humming and whistling long after the track has ended.
To help you do this, here are five tips to make a melody memorable.
Keep things simple
If I give you four numbers to memorize, you’ll be able to do it, right? What if I give you twenty numbers? It’s probably a lot less likely.
Keeping your melody simple is the easiest way to make it memorable. Think of the music from Jaws – it’s really just two notes. Listening to popular songs and melodies you’ll notice they’re relatively simple, built off of a few notes or simple shapes and scales.
It also leaves enough scope to go crazy with it as the song progresses. Just listen to any John Williams score. He consistently takes a simple melody and twists and reworks it throughout each film to really pull you in.
Keeping it simple gives you some place to go.
Repeating sections of the melody can help strengthen it, and following those repeats with a change pushes your melody forward. Going back to the “four numbers” idea, you’re even more likely to remember them if I repeat them.
Look at the main Star Wars theme, for example:
Notice how it repeats, and then changes.
How about a pop classic like the legendary “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson?
It’s all repetitions, repetitions (with slight rhythm changes) and then a change. Beautiful simplicity!
Framing the chords
Foreground and Background are concepts used in all forms of art, and are best used when the two are working together supporting each other. But how can we do that with a melody? By having it frame the harmony.
Let’s use the notes of the C Major triad, C, E and G in our melody. Even without the harmony in place our listener (with years of subconscious listening) knows exactly what chord we’re using.
Let’s take a look at the Main Theme of the Spaghetti Western Classic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (a.k.a. the most whistled melody of all time!)
You’ll hear that the first half of the melody only uses tones from the chords and nothing else. As it continues, the motif repeats over different chords and then returns to nothing but chord tones.
Developing through repetition
By repeating our main motif over new harmonies or ideas we can tickle the listener’s ear. We’ve already got them hooked with our melody, so there’s no reason to switch to an entirely new idea right away. We can really let it sink in by repeating the idea and developing it a little each time. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, for example, the chord under our main motif has changed. Here are just a few more ideas to develop our melodies.
– Altering the range of our melody and/or harmony
– Altering the instrumentation of our melody and/or harmony
– Turning a rhythmic harmony to a more sustained one
– Turning a major melody into a minor one (and vice versa)
– Keeping our harmony/chords static, droning one chord throughout the melody
– Altering the melody by reversing it, mirroring it, inverting it, etc…
Loud and clear
It sounds obvious, but make sure that your melody can be heard by the listener!
Whether it’s crafting your arrangement so that the harmonies and supporting instruments are out of the melody’s range, or using mixing techniques like panning, eq or dynamics to create room for your melody, you need to devise a way for the main idea of your composition to be heard.
Listening to the masters of classical music, you’ll usually hear the main melody of a piece played clear and unobstructed the first time it’s heard. Then as the piece progresses it gradually gets surrounded by other notes and ideas, but thanks to repetition and clever orchestration, the listener can always hear the melody.
Here’s Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony No.1 in D Minor – Grave” as an example. In the first statement of the melody at 0:38, it’s played by Clarinet, while the harmony is simple, and the accompaniment is very soft. (And for bonus points, Rachmaninoff is creating a Counter Line by repeating a previous melody in the Violas!)
Now, listen to the melody’s return later in the piece at 7:47. The melody is loud and lively on the Violins, with the harmony slightly more complex and the accompanying instruments much louder. In both examples each instrumental color and range is chosen to ensure balance and focus on the melody.
By taking advantage of various writing, arrangement, and mixing techniques, you can make your melody the focus. And once the memorable foundations are in place, the possibilities for creatively expanding your track become endless!
Limiting the amount of notes, repeating the melody, creating an agreeable harmony, adding small changes to it as the song progresses, and simply making sure your melody is the heard all affect how memorable it will be.
The key is simplicity, and by ensuring each of your tracks ticks the boxes of all these criteria, you’ll be perfecting the magical mastery of melody in no time.