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How to write better melodies

Posted by johnfn - July 17th, 2015


In the NGAUC, I'm about to complain about everyone's composition. Which would not be very fair if I didn't explain how to get better at it. Here we go!

In order of how important I think it is:

  • Learn an instrument. - Playing the piano is the best thing I've done for my composition. It allows me to experiment so much more rapidly than anything else. Plus, for some reason I'm a lot more creative when I'm not on my computer. (Just think, how many good ideas have you come up with while on your computer? Ok, now: how many good ideas have you come up with in the shower? On walks?)
  • Play along with songs that you enjoy

This is the most important tip here, so read this carefully.

  1. Find a song you like and play it on speakers.
  2. Simultaneously, try to play along with it on your favorite instrument. Play until you can pick out the bassline and melody most of the time. You're going to make mistakes - a LOT of mistakes. Play until you get to the point where you're playing the meaning of the song, with feeling, rather than hunting notes or playing mechanically. 

Repeat forever.

It's hard to explain exactly why, but after doing this for a few days, you'll find that your fingers just naturally want to go to chords that sound good and just naturally want to find melodies that are more interesting. You don't have to internalize rules like "chord movement by 5ths sounds the strongest" - you'll just know, because you've heard it in practice over and over again.

It's a little like jamming, except you're jamming with musicians who are ridiculously talented.

By the way, this approach is actually fun too - I mean, you're listening to your favorite music and learning how to play it. How could that not be fun?

  • The importance of coffee, exercise and alcohol can not be overstated. Whenever I write a song I have this voice telling me that what I'm writing is no good. Doing any one of these 3 things is enough to get him to shut up long enough to be creative. The combination of coffee and exercise is particularly amazing. I have never written a bad song while drinking coffee after a run.
  • Try to use your mistakes - Mistakes inspire creativity. Every time you accidentally do something, stop and see if you could somehow work what you just did into the song. e.g. one time I accidentally pasted a melody into the wrong place in a song - but then I realized it sounded kinda neat and tweaked it into something awesome. Or maybe you accidentally sidechain your lead to the kick, but then it sounds kinda neat. The point is to reframe "oops that was a mistake" into "maybe I can use that!"
  • Write chiptune. I love writing chiptune because it's a genre that's 90%+ dependent on your compositional strength (mixing is trivial). If you write a lot of if you're just naturally going to get better at writing melodies. There's nothing else to do.
  • Give good feedback to other people. I don't think it's a coincidence that some of the best musicians I know (ahem... @Step, @SkyeWint ...) are also the people who can write like 10 paragraphs dissecting something I wrote. You learn a lot from really sitting down and actively paying attention to other music you like. Figure out exactly what is going on in a song. Try to figure out every layer that's playing. Try to figure out exactly why a buildup is working so well. And yeah, you can help out other people immensely by giving them feedback.

Keep this in mind: Writing good melodies is hard. Really hard. Even as musicians we often don't appreciate just how hard it is to come up with a great melody. So don't feel bad if you don't do good on your first attempt, or in your first month, or even in your first year. EVERYONE struggles with this.

I hope that helped. Now let's get excited and write some awesome music!


2

Comments

The alternative, which I often suggest (and which I also learned as part of music theory several years ago) is to take a set of words, mainly poetic ones, try saying them, and noting where our voice goes high and low. Then treat the tones in speech like tones in a song. Set it to a melody, putting the higher notes on the emphases or something..... make sure it all sounds tonal and not bad to the ears.... and then here you go!

(That can be done with rhythm as well; longer counts for emphases, shorter counts for quicker syllables.)

This method sometimes sticks with me, I'll admit, and I remember doing lots and lots of practice on setting poetic verse to music -- I remember the first example given to me was "My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky"; you could imagine how easy it would be to place emphases.

Just thought I'd throw it out there; it might be a good method for some.

Wow thanks helped alot

Exxcellenttt

Learning to play an instrument sure does help get your ideas out fast. I have been a guitarist for years and I gotta feeling if I hadn't of been, my comping wouldnt be half as good as what it is if I had of just relied on computer sequencer alone. Having said that the only problem with a physical instrument is you can get caught up in the techniques and styles that are unique to that instrument so really I guess its best for your composition all round if you can play more than one. Your totally right about chip tune, its great for working on melodies, even more so in a tracker because it almost completly frees you up from mixing. Its all fun really

I play the piano a lot, and I can confirm. I've never really had any difficulties when it comes to creating melodies, due to these things. I can almost improvise mediocre ones at this point, even if my theory knowledge is extremely limited. I also recommend listening to a lot of music that other people have made, in several different genres, until good melodies become part of your subconscious. The only thing I'm afraid of is that some of my good melodies are actually acidentally "stolen" XD
But also, I want to stress that if one plays an intrument, it's great to just play whatever gibberish that your body (fingers/hands, in the case of a piano) will do, every once in a while. Even if you don't know how to improvise when you start, and what you play sounds horrible, you'll eventually learn to play chords that go well together, etc.
I often get the base for a song from just remembering a good riff that I accidentally came upon by way of improvisation, and so on.
Thanks for writing all these guides for us! :D

Absolutely love all of this information - really cool!

Thanks. This will help me a lot I hope.

I will try the methods. Chiptune is fun. It is really easy to arrange so I just have to deal with the melody. ;)

Giving good feedback is hard. If I like the song I can't really give tips what to improve and I don't want to write comments like: 'I love this song. It's good.' I don't think it will help the musician.

Playalong? Is it allowed to have the scores of the music? Or is it cheating? In this situation I want to be perfect. This means I don't want to have only the melody and the bass but every single note has to be on the perfect place. So my method:
1. Get the scores.
2. Play the song. Sometimes needed to practise some tricky sections.
3. Goto 2.
4. Play the song to audition (my family, etc.)

With this method I don't have to observe the song just need a lot of practise. The result is: I never play the song just practise it.

Ohh and yes, the speakers are really important. I write my songs in headphones and the songs sound totally different on speakers.

Anyways thanks for the ideas.