The Boxy Melody:
“Boxy” melodies are those in which the notes stay close to each other. They don’t tend to move much. “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane is a good example. Some people think of the word “monotone” when they hear singers, or songs, like this, but sometimes it’s not the delivery but the notes.
Boxy, however, doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” Other elements in the song, such as instrumentation, chord progression, or a well-delivered vocal can work against, or with, a boxy melody in order to make the song gripping. For instance, Britney Spears’s “Womanizer” is catchy not because the melody of the hook is inventive but, rather, because it’s repetitive and because the production compensates for what the melody lacks. Think, too, of songs that have repeated whole notes held out over interesting guitar riffs (U2, Coldplay, The Killers e.g.). Another classic example would be the beginning of “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles.
The Moving Melody:
Unlike the boxy melody, the moving melody seeks to jump quite a bit, putting more space between notes on the scale. Brian Wilson was a master of this: “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” are both great examples of moving melodies. Listen to those tunes and listen to the “distance” between the notes, particularly of the verses in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
A lot of 80s pop is extremely melodic, too, even the kitsch-iest tunes (follow the melody of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” and listen for the space between the notes).
The Dip and Rise:
One way to build a moving melody is to work with what I call the “Dip and rise.” Think of “My Heart Will Go On.” In the chorus, the melody descends on the “where” only to rise in climax on “ever you are.” The fact that “where” dips right after the words “near” and “far” rise, also lends to this interesting movement. Don’t worry, I’m not a fan; it’s just an [very successful] example. “Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2 has elements of this, too. Or, Aha’s “Take on Me”: “In [dip] a [rise] day!”
Melody also depends on the length, or value, of the notes. It’s no surprise that, just as is the case with movement between notes on the scale, movement between the length of notes is also going to make the melody move more. Again, listen to the “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys. Pauses ( or rests) between notes and the juxtapositions between quarter and eighth notes create an interesting dynamic that propels the song (and makes it catchy!).
Now, if you consciously think of all of these elements while you’re writing, you’ll drive yourself mad. I often tell my creative writing students to “get it out” first and assess the elements of craft in retrospect. This works the same for songwriting. Spill your heart, listen to your heart, and then decide if your heart needs some help. It usually does.
Decide whether you’re going for boxy or moving and take it from there.
The best way to learn to write a great melody is to listen to melodies that you enjoy, internalize them, hum them throughout the day. You know, as the cliché goes, become one with your art form.
Phillip E. Mitchell is a three-time finalist and 11-time semi-finalist in the UK Songwriting Contest and a semi-finalist and runner-up in the Song of the Year Contest.
Also, Phillip's new album will be released soon.