Writing catchy melodies can be hugely frustrating, especially for beginners.
How can all these pro’s be writing such catchy, impactful and memorable melodies?
The biggest issue is most producers overthink the melody writing process.
And if you just keep a few basic principles in mind when writing melodies you will notice a huge difference in the quality of them.
Let’s start this off by analyzing a couple well known melodies.
Major Lazer & DJ Snake feat. MØ – Lean On
Firstly, this melody is incredibly simple. It touches on only 4 notes!
And each repetition is only 3 notes long.
What makes it interesting are a few things:
- The chords change after every 3 note phrase – therefore we hear a different harmony on each repetition.
- There’s a variation on note lengths – more on that later.
- A slight variation in rhythm happens on the 3rd repetition where the G gets cut short and then repeated before the final phrase.
- The sound used to play the melody is a unique vocal sample. It also has pitch bends from the A to the Bb.
Skrillex – Summit (feat. Ellie Goulding)
The whole song is built around this simple melody.
Here are a few things to note:
- It gets repeated over and over again, however the B section of the melody, or the response part response changes slightly every time. It uses different synths and sometimes vocal chops to keep it sounding fresh and unique.
- Through each repetition the chords are changing, so like we saw in Major Lazer’s Lean On, the harmony is always changing.
- The melody is built using the notes from the first chord in the progression (D#min), the only note that isn’t in the chord is C#.
Similarities in these melodies
- Both melodies are simple
- They get repeated
- The harmony changes over time
- Slight variations in the melodies keep them interesting…
- … Along with unique sounds (in this case vocal chops).
- Use of pitch bends
- Both use call and response
Ok, so with these qualities in mind lets discuss 9 tips for writing catchy, memorable melodies:
- Keep it simple
- Repetition and Variation
- Note Lengths
- Pitch Bends
- Call and Response
- Stay on the tonic
- Stay away from the tonic
Keep it simple
One of the traps beginner producers tend to get themselves into, is thinking that the more complex something is, the better it sounds.
Let me make this clear.
Complex DOES NOT EQUAL catchy.
One of the most common qualities all the catchiest, best sounding melodies share is that they can be easily remembered and hummed after hearing them only a few times.
And how do you get the listener to hear the melody a few times? You repeat it.
Repetition and Variation
Now I don’t think most beginners have a problem with repetition, its not a hard concept. You just copy and paste the melody over and over again , right?
The trick is to repeat something with out it feeling repetitive and boring.
We achieve this through the use of variation.
So what can we variate?
- Note lengths – more on this below.
- Harmony (changing chords beneath the melody)
- Adding pitch bends every so often
- Changing sounds – for example opening up a filter over time or mixing in another instrument playing the same melody.
- Keep the same call but change the response.
Its very common for beginners to write an entire melody using the exact same note lengths.
The issue with this is that it begins to feel very robotic.
I like to think of the notes in my melodies like words in a song.
Not all words are the same length and neither should all notes be.
In the previous section about note lengths I spoke about treating the notes in your melody like words in a song.
The same concept can be applied to pitch.
When people sing and even speak, it’s really common for a single word to bend up or down in pitch.
Think of someone walking into an empty house and yelling “Hellooooo!?”
The “He” usually starts off low and bends up in pitch in the “lloooo!?” part of the word.
The same concept can be applied to melodies. Especially with longer, sustained notes.
Pitch bends can make melodies feel more natural and sound more interesting because we are used to hearing them in our everyday lives.
It can also be beneficial to enable portamento on your synth and bend some notes into each other instead of each note re-triggering.
I loaded up a more sustained patch into serum and added some pitch bends into the Skrillex – Summit melody to see how we could add a bit more of a natural feel to it.
The thin red line shows the pitch bend automation.
Call and Response
Think of call and response as having two different phrases played one after the other.
One phrase is making the “call” and the other phrase “responds” almost like an answer.
Let’s look at the Lean On melody again.
The first part goes A -> Bb -> G this is what I would consider the call. The response would be the second part (A -> Bb -> D).
The reason this works so well is because the call ends on a G which is higher than the response which ends on a D. Just like how a question usually ends on a high pitch and the answer will end on a lower pitch.
Now imagine they just repeated only the call over and over again. The melody would feel unnatural, incomplete and almost like it’s stuck, or unanswered.
The Skrillex – Summit melody is a perfect way to show changes in harmony.
Look at the below image and listen to the audio clip.
The melody doesn’t actually change until the fourth repetition.
However, because the chords playing beneath the melody are changing on each repetition. The listener feels like they are hearing something new each time.
Staying on the tonic
You will hear this a lot in genres like techno, progressive trance and psytrance.
The melody will play in a syncopated or somewhat interesting rhythm like triplets or dotted notes but it tends to stay on only a single pitch, that pitch being the tonic (first note of the scale), and will eventually lead into chord change or a little fill where the melody moves briefly to another note or set of notes.
This does two things:
- It creates an almost hypnotic feeling for the listener.
- Because it’s so hypnotizing, when you do finally move to another note the impact is huge.
Try it yourself
- Open a synth and load up a basic saw wave.
- Add a low pass filter to cut out some highs.
- Make a plucky envelope shape.
- Add reverb and delay.
- Make a dotted 8th note rhythm using only the tonic.
- At the end of every 4 bars move the last note down 2 semitones (the 7th note in the minor scale).
- Try adding another oscillator pitched 5 semitones down (perfect fifth) for a more interesting but still hypnotic feel.
- Bonus points for adding some filter movement at the end of each 4 bars.
Pay attention to the hypnotic feel of this and the impact of moving the note down briefly every 4 bars.
Staying away from the tonic
Because the tonic is the note the listener most craves, it can be a good idea to hold off on playing it.
Try starting a melody on a different note. Stay away from the tonic until the end of the melody. When you finally do resolve to the tonic there will be a strong feeling of tension and release.
While there’s never any clear recipe to follow to write a great melody. If you try to keep it simple, use interesting sounds and apply some form of variation to it you should already be well on your way to writing an enjoyable melody.
Thanks for reading and I hope you learnt something new!