A melody is the most memorable part of any song. It’s the sequence of notes that you sing or hum along with, and it’s what makes a song catchy and recognizable.
But writing an original, infectious melody from scratch can seem intimidating, even for experienced songwriters.
Where do you start? How do you craft something that will hook listeners immediately and stick in their minds?
In this beginner’s guide, we’ll break down the melody writing process into simple, accessible steps.
Whether you’re writing your first song or looking to improve your melodic skills, these tips will help you create tunes that are hummable, singable, and downright catchy.
What Exactly Is a Melody?
“Melody is the essence of music.” – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Before diving into how to write a melody, let’s quickly cover the melody basics.
A melody is, quite simply, a sequence of musical notes. It consists of two core components:
Pitch: The highness or lowness of each note, depending on its frequency. Higher pitch notes sound higher and brighter. Lower-pitch notes sound deeper and darker.
Duration: The length of each note, controlling how long it’s held before moving to the next note. Shorter notes sound quick and clipped. Longer notes are sustained and drawn out.
While a melody can stand alone, it’s most commonly supported by an underlying chord progression, which is a series of chords providing harmonic structure. The melody notes tend to complement and embellish the chords beneath them.
Melodies can also be derived from particular scales or built around central motifs, which are short melodic or rhythmic ideas repeated throughout a piece. But don’t worry about these advanced concepts for now.
The most crucial thing to understand is that a melody carries the heart and soul of a song. A great melody captures the essence of the lyrics and transforms them into a haunting, hummable tune.
Now let’s get into how to create one.
Choose a Scale and Key
|Key||Major Scale||Minor Scale|
|C||C Major: C D E F G A B||A Minor: A B C D E F G|
|G||G Major: G A B C D E F#||E Minor: E F# G A B C D|
|D||D Major: D E F# G A B C#||B Minor: B C# D E F# G A|
|A||A Major: A B C# D E F# G#||F# Minor: F# G# A B C# D E|
|E||E Major: E F# G# A B C# D#||C# Minor: C# D# E F# G# A B|
|B||B Major: B C# D# E F# G# A#||G# Minor: G# A# B C# D# E F#|
|F#||F# Major: F# G# A# B C# D# E#(F)||D# Minor: D# E#(F) F# G# A# B C#|
|Db||Db Major: Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C||Bb Minor: Bb C Db Eb F Gb Ab|
|Ab||Ab Major: Ab Bb C Db Eb F G||F Minor: F G Ab Bb C Db Eb|
|Eb||Eb Major: Eb F G Ab Bb C D||C Minor: C D Eb F G Ab Bb|
|Bb||Bb Major: Bb C D Eb F G A||G Minor: G A Bb C D Eb F|
|F||F Major: F G A Bb C D E||D Minor: D E F G A Bb C|
The first decision to make when writing a melody is choosing a scale and key. This establishes the collection of notes you can use and defines the overall tonality.
What Are Scales and Keys?
Scales: A scale is an ordered sequence of notes spanning an octave (eight notes). There are many different scales with unique intervals between each note. Common scales include major, minor, blues, and chromatic.
|Major||Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half|
|Natural Minor||Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole|
|Harmonic Minor||Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Augmented 2nd, Half|
|Melodic Minor Ascending||Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half|
|Melodic Minor Descending||Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole|
|Major Pentatonic||Whole, Whole, Whole-and-a-half, Whole, Whole-and-a-half|
|Minor Pentatonic||Whole-and-a-half, Whole, Whole, Whole-and-a-half, Whole|
|Blues||Whole-and-a-half, Whole, Half, Half, Whole-and-a-half, Whole|
Keys: A key centers the scale on a particular starting note called the tonic. Each key has a unique color, emotion, and tonality. For example, songs in C major sound bright, while songs in A minor sound melancholic.
How Do You Pick the Right Scale and Key?
Choosing a scale and key that complements your song idea takes experimentation and practice. But here are some guidelines for selecting melodic foundations:
Match the genre: Certain scales are associated with particular genres, such as major scales in pop or minor scales in folk. Pick a scale that aligns with your style.
|Major||Pop, Country, Classical, Jazz, Rock|
|Natural Minor||Pop, Rock, Classical, Metal, Folk|
|Harmonic Minor||Metal, Jazz, Classical|
|Melodic Minor||Jazz, Classical|
|Major Pentatonic||Blues, Rock, Country, Folk, Pop|
|Minor Pentatonic||Blues, Rock, Metal, Jazz, Pop|
|Blues||Blues, Rock, Jazz|
|Dorian Mode||Jazz, Rock, Funk, Blues|
|Mixolydian Mode||Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country|
Support the mood: Bright major scales evoke happy emotions, while sad minor scales evoke melancholy. Choose a scale that enhances the vibe you want.
|C Major||Pure, innocent, simple|
|D Major||Triumphant, victorious, joyful|
|E Major||Radiant, warm, expressive|
|F Major||Peaceful, calm, soothing|
|G Major||Serene, pastoral, every-day|
|A Major||Bright, cheerful, tender|
|B Major||Strong, assertive, intense|
|C Minor||Sad, somber, tragic|
|D Minor||Mournful, serious, melancholic|
|E Minor||Restless, anxious, nervous|
|F Minor||Deep depression, lamenting|
|G Minor||Discontent, unease|
|A Minor||Grave, solemn, brooding|
|B Minor||Gloomy, dark, sullen|
Consider the instruments: Some scales suit certain instruments better. For example, pentatonic scales work well on guitar.
Determine the vocal range: Test different keys to find one that fits comfortably within the singer’s vocal range.
Analyze the chords: Base your scale around the underlying chords to create consonant harmony.
|Major||Major, Major 7th, Minor, Minor 7th, Dominant 7th, Half-diminished, Diminished|
|Natural Minor||Minor, Minor 7th, Major, Major 7th, Dominant 7th, Diminished, Half-diminished|
|Harmonic Minor||Minor, Minor/Major 7th, Augmented, Major 7th, Dominant 7th, Diminished, Diminished 7th|
|Melodic Minor Ascending||Minor/Major 7th, Minor 7th, Augmented Major 7th, Dominant 7th, Dominant 7th, Half-diminished, Minor 7th|
|Major Pentatonic||Major, Major 6th, Suspended 2nd, Suspended 4th, 5th|
|Minor Pentatonic||Minor, Minor 7th, Suspended 4th, 5th, Minor 6th|
|Blues||Minor, Dominant 7th, 9th, 13th|
Use common progressions: Many great melodies are built on standard chord progressions like I-IV-V or vi-IV-I-V.
|I – IV – V – IV||Common in many pop and rock songs, sometimes called the “50s progression” or “do-wop progression”. Example: C – F – G – F|
|ii – V – I||Common in jazz, this progression has a strong resolution due to the circle of fifths. Example: Dm – G – C|
|I – V – vi – IV||This is a popular chord progression in many pop songs. Example: C – G – Am – F|
|I – vi – IV – V||This is a classic ’50s progression’, also found in many modern pop songs. Example: C – Am – F – G|
|vi – IV – I – V||Another common pop song progression. Example: Am – F – C – G|
|ii – vi – I – V||This progression is common in jazz and some pop music. Example: Dm – Am – C – G|
Starting with the right scale and key lays the groundwork for crafting a moving, cohesive melody.
Use Rhythm, Contour, and Repetition
Once you’ve selected your key and scale, it’s time to map out your melody’s rhythm, contour, and repetitive motifs. These are the three cornerstones of catchy, memorable melodic writing.
Rhythm is the pattern of long and short, stressed and unstressed notes in your melody. Get your rhythm right, and your melody will groove. Get it wrong, and it can sound awkward and disjointed.
- Use a combination of note durations to create rhythmic interest. Dot your quarter notes with eighth notes to build rhythmic motifs.
- Syncopate certain hits to create an off-beat, unexpected groove. This captures attention through rhythmic surprise.
- Outline the underlying chord changes with longer note values to ground your rhythms.
- Keep your core rhythmic motifs consistent in the verse and chorus to reinforce repetition.
A melody’s contour refers to the overall shape and direction of its musical line. Contour builds momentum and emotional dynamics.
- Use ascending lines that step progressively higher in pitch to build tension and energy.
- Use descending lines that step lower in pitch to create resolution and release.
- Balance tension and release by combining ascending and descending phrases.
- Work towards climax points by pushing to higher pitches at musically impactful moments.
- Reinforce cadences by ending phrases on the tonic or resting tone.
Repeating melodic motifs throughout a song gives it a memorable hook and cohesive identity.
- Create a compelling core phrase then repeat it consistently, especially during the chorus.
- Use sequences by repeating a melodic pattern starting on a different pitch.
- Develop your melody by keeping the rhythm steady but changing the pitches.
- Introduce melodic variation to avoid sounding monotonous.
Rhythm, contour, and repetition form the backbone of solid melodic writing. Master them, and you’ll craft tunes that listeners quickly latch onto and recall.
Add Supporting Harmony
A bare melody can sound thin on its own. Bolster it by adding chordal accompaniment.
Harmony refers to notes that sound simultaneously and complement the melody. Usually, this harmony comes from instruments like guitar, piano, synths, or backing vocal parts.
When writing, rough out the melody first, then add chords underneath to thicken up your musical bed.
Here are tips for melodic harmonization:
- Stick to chords that fit the song’s key and scale to ensure consonance.
- Change chords on long melody notes to avoid dissonance.
- Use basic triads on strong beats to outline the tonality.
- Include occasional seventh chords for more complex harmony.
- Try arpeggiating chords by playing notes separately instead of together.
- Separate the melody and harmony rhythms to interlock them.
- Have the melody follow chord tones to accentuate harmony.
- Add countermelodies using parallel or contrary motion.
Harmony elevates a plain melody into a rich musical environment. Experiment with chords and countermelodies until you strike the right supportive balance.
Set Impactful, Memorable Lyrics
“I think my melodies are superior to my lyrics.” – Freddie Mercury
What’s a melody without lyrics? The perfect lyrical phrases transport a nice tune into a full-fledged song.
As you write your lyrics, keep the melody’s rhythm and phrasing in mind. Lyrics should complement the existing melody, not fight against it.
Here are some lyric-writing tips:
- Emphasize important words on strong melody beats to punch them through.
- Use lots of rhymes to make lyrics flow off the tongue. Rhymes also make lyrics more memorable.
- Write phrases that don’t strain the melody. Don’t cram too many syllables over fast notes.
- Use repetition to reinforce catchy lyrical motifs, just like the melody.
- Be consistent with rhyme schemes and patterns so verses sound cohesive.
- Focus lyrics on storytelling to give melody meaning and purpose.
- Evoke emotions that fit the melody and genre, from joyful to heartbreaking.
With practice, you’ll learn how to “marry” your lyrics to melodies seamlessly. Both halves will work together to deliver maximum catchiness.
Generate Ideas Through Improvisation
Many acclaimed melodies don’t come from formally plotting out notes, but from improvising freely on an instrument. By playing around without judgment, you give your creative intuition space to flourish.
Try improvising over a backing chord progression. Allow melodic phrases to flow intuitively, capturing any sparks of inspiration. Record your improvisational sessions to listen back later for standout melodic ideas.
Don’t overthink during the initial improv phase. The goal is to loosen up and let your melodic instincts guide you down unexpected paths. Stay open to accidental melodies that emerge spontaneously.
Improvisation taps into your raw musicality. With enough practice, impressive melodic concepts can bubble up through unplanned experimentation and play.
Putting It All Together
Songwriting is often about experimentation. Be prepared to improvise, try multiple options, then pick what sounds best.
But to recap, here are the key steps to writing a catchy, hummable melody:
- Choose a scale and key to establish the foundation
- Build rhythm, contour, and repetition to form the core melody
- Add supporting harmony to enrich the melody
- Set great lyrics that complement the melody
- Improvise freely to uncover raw melodic ideas
The more songs you write, the more these steps will become second nature. You’ll develop melodic intuition that guides you down creative paths.
So grab your instrument, fire up some backing tracks, and start playing with pitches and note values. Turn those sparks of inspiration into full-fledged melodies that impress listeners.
With dedication and practice, you too can write infectious tunes that get stuck in people’s heads. Now get out there and write the next catchy melody the world will be singing!