Sticky Melodies

It’s no secret that music has a memory-enhancing effect on the human mind. Of all the components in pop music, melody is the one most easily remembered. It is an interesting fact that people can more easily remember a melody without lyrics than vice versa. That does not mean that all melodies are equally memorable. We’ve all experience having a melody stuck in our brain. Writing such melodies is every songwriter’s goal, but how is it done?

Bite Size Pieces
A melody can be broken down into “phrases”, which usually correspond with one line of the lyric. Each phrase may contain several “motifs”. A motif can be as small as one or two notes. As an example let’s examine this line from Get Back, by the Beatles:

Get back…get back…get back to where you once belonged.

In this phrase, the notes to the words “get back” are the first motif. The second motif contains identical notes and lyrics. The notes that accompany the words “Get back to where you once belonged” are the motif that completes the phrase. See how easy it is to remember? It’s broken down into two catchy, two-note motifs that cling to the brain like superglue. They are “mini-hooks” that interest and engage the listener. The third and final motif begins with the same notes as the first two, before adding the remaining notes that resolve the phrase. It should also be noted that between each “get back” the song is punctuated with a musical hook played by the guitar and drums - a hook so integral that it’s almost impossible to imagine these lines without it! The Beatles were indeed masters at loading their songs with hooks!

Bubble-Gum Pops
You should also strive to write melodies that make it obvious where the title goes, even without the lyrics present. There are many ways to accomplish this. Try altering the range of the melody during the title phrase. Inserting a dramatic pause directly before or after the title is also very effective. You can also alter the rhythm of the title phrase to set it apart from the rest of the melody.

Cinnamon Twists
Pop melodies are generally linear (without too many big interval skips) because that makes them easier for most people to sing. However, linear melodies are often emotionally neutral. When you arrive at a point in the lyrics where you want to really provoke a powerful emotion, throw in a big interval jump - works every time. The Christmas Song and Somewhere Over the Rainbow are great examples of this. The first two notes of both songs are an entire octave apart! The writers of those songs new that using such a large interval skip would make them difficult to sing. They chose to do it anyway, and to great effect! In both songs there is an immediate sense of drama and emotion. The listener is immediately engaged, and anything that engages a listener is a hook! Remember:

Linear note progression = emotionally neutral
Big interval progression = emotionally powerful

Salt-Water Taffy

Another way to make a melody more memorable is to follow cues contained in the lyrics. For example, if the lyric contains the words “higher and higher”, you might consider writing a melody that does just that, ascending in pitch with each successive word. In the Garth Brooks hit I’ve Got Friends in Low Places the word “low” is the lowest note in the line. Of course, in the song Ring of Fire, Johnny Cash sings the words “I went down, down, down…” but the notes go up, up, up. Lesson: don’t rewrite a great melody just to appease a few words in a lyric.

Got any ideas of your own for making melodies more memorable? Let’s hear them!

*Photo by coba.


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