One of the most frequently questions people ask when writing a song is ‘How can I write a catchy melody?”. Certainly with so many songs being released every day, this is a huge challenge in today’s music industry. The large demand for catchy melodies has created a new songwriting style in the recent years, dubbed “top-line writing”.
When writing and producing music in Ableton Live, top-line writing might became one of your strongest tools to write catchy melodies. This is a style where we write melodies over a beat that’s being looped. Top-line writing is a great tool to not only write music, but also to perfect your production as we constantly hear the same beat over and over again. So, that way you can notice any parts of the beat that seem like it’s not working and you can fix them.
So how do we write catchy melodies? Is there a perfect formula that works all the time? Is there a shortcut?
The short answer is “No”. The short answer is that the melody should be memorable (read: simple), yet crafty. It should be interesting, but not too complicated. It should be simple, but not basic. Writing a good melody depends on a very delicate balance that we can acquire with one thing and one thing only: Practice.
There are two major modes in western music, major or minor. Major is associated with happy songs, where minor is associated with sad. But this is an oversimplification and songs are much more complicated than happy and sad. So let’s get into some theory to see how this might be.
In our human perception, the concept of melody is tightly rigged to the concept of rhythm. Our brain is used to finding patterns and when we listen to music, we feel at ease when we can find patterns. So, in order to write a melody that’s considered simple, the most important aspect is to place your important notes to where your important beats are occurring. Let’s break this down:
In a typical 4/4 time signature, we have four beats (each corresponding to a quarter note), or as we simply count out as 1, 2, 3, 4. Another way to think about this is stomp and clamp. As we stomp and clap, we stomp on 1 and 3 and clap on 2 and 4. Make sense right? So consider this, 1 and 3 are considered strong beats, while 2 and 4 are considered weak beats.
In order to make your melody considered simple, you would simply put your ‘important notes’ on strong beats and ‘not so important notes’ on weak beats. What do I mean by this?
The ‘important notes’ would be notes 1, 3 or 5 on a musical scale, and ‘non-important’ ones would be 2, 4, 6. So, on our C major scale of C, D, E, F, G, A, B – the important notes would be C, E, G (notice how they are 1st, 3rd and 5th in this order, this is what makes them give the number 1, 3, 5). So following this example, then the ‘non-important notes’ would be D, F, A.
Putting C, E, G on beat 1 and 3; while putting D, F, A on beats 2 and 4 naturally makes us feel ‘at ease’ and ‘comfortable’ in this scale.
But why do we do this? Who makes these rules? What makes a note important or not? Can we not put other notes in other beats? Of course we can. As everything in music, there are not really any rules. These are just conventions based on what the typical Western listener is used to hearing. Different cultures have different conventions and moreover, the history of music is full of broken rules and innovations. But before we break the rules, we should learn them first!
I invite everyone to jump on a keyboard or piano and experiment on these with a metronome, because by hearing how melody is in relation to rhythm, you will have a much clearer idea of what works best and what doesn’t. When writing good melodies, the most important thing is that you like what you’re singing. If you don’t like what you’re singing, probably no one else will. But if you do like what you are singing, then you have a good chance with other people as well!
What’s your typical workflow for writing and producing a song? Feel free to comment below!
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Alper Tuzcu is a Berklee College of Music and Denison University alumni, and a Boston based guitarist, songwriter and producer. His new EP ‘Lines’ was released on November 2017 and his debut eclectic album ‘Between 12 Waters’ featuring 8 different vocalists is available on Spotify. In addition to being a musician, he regularly teaches workshops and masterclasses internationally. You can follow him on Instagram or Twitter, and for more information you can visit his website www.alpertuzcu.com