Creating Great Melodies

One thing that has always been an important part of popular music is the melody. Most pop and rock songwriters are preoccupied with coming up with a memorable hook. In most cases this means a great melody (it can also be a memorable lyric or instrumental hook). Writing a great melody seems to be shrouded in mystery to most writers. It usually comes down to trying to find inspiration and hope that something comes. There are in fact many ways that melodies work and can analyzed. There are a couple of ways that you can take a basic idea and vary it in different ways to come up with something original and hopefully memorable.

Different Lines

To begin with we have to look at melodies as basic musical lines. There are some ways that these lines are more interesting to us and others that makes us lose interest. These usually follow the same general rules we apply to other arts. For example; variation is good, too much confuses us. Repetition is good, too much and we lose interest.

Tension and Release

A big part of music right from the beginning is the concept of tension and release. Music goes through phases of creating tension and then creating a release. In fact, the upper voices of a chord (the 9, 11, 13) are referred to as 'tensions'. This can be in the form of a crescendo in classical music, a build-up and breakdown in dance music or a interesting chord in the middle of a verse. Pop music is in a continual state of build-up and release, tension and release. It's important to think about these tensions in creating a melody because they are so effective when the release comes. There are numerous ways to create tension in a melody.


One of the oldest ways to create tension in a melody was through 'suspensions'. A suspension is a note that isn't in the chord (it's suspended) that resolves down to a chord tone. The most famous of these being the suspended 4th.  Just play a chord and instead of playing C E G, play C F G. The E (the third) is replaced (it must be replaced and not just added). When first introduced, these chords would always resolve (release) down back to the basic triad (C E G). After hundreds of years of use however, there is no need to resolve the chord (it's considered a cliche since it was done for so long) but the 'tension is still there. Generally this 4th comes from the melody. So try writing a melody over a C major chord with an F in the melody. The rhythm section will usually play a suspended chord to reinforce the sound. This sound has a 'hanging in mid air' feel to it. Some jazz compositions are based upon suspended 4ths that cycle and are never resolved. Another way to create this tension in your melody is to keep the note the same and change the chord. For example: sing a C note and then play a C chord over it. Then change your chord to a G major but keep singing the C note. If you don't resolve the C note up or down (to a B or D), you'll notice that it creates tension in the melody. Marry this with an interesting lyric and you'll have something special. The 4th and 2nd are the two tones that are used as suspensions. Rock and pop guitarists use these so often that it's usually an automatic part of their playing (whether they realize it or not).

Chord Tensions

Along the same line as the preceding example, there are the aforementioned chord tensions.A chord tension is simply a note that isn't part of the triad. This includes the 9th, 11th and 13th. The 7th is also a tension but in the jazz vernacular it's such a basic part of the music that they don't consider it a 'tension'. What this comes down to for songwriters is that any note that is not part of the chord (usually just a triad), is considered a tension. It's also important to note that if you want to create tension with one of these notes, it must be 'important' within the melody line. That means it must be held longer, put on a strong beat, repeated, or put in a high point of the melody. Essentially if you're singing a tension over a chord but the melody only goes there for an eighth note, it won't be considered a tension because it won't stand out in your melody. The best way to 'feel' these tensions is to sing/play them over a major (or minor) chord. Play a C chord and then sing the notes of the C scale over the chord. Remember to just sing the one note and hold it for a long time to feel the tension.  (There are other tensions that aren't in the C major scale but we'll go over these at a later date.)


In today's music, the importance of rhythm can't be understated. What a lot of musicians don't realize is that rhythm is a huge part of creating a memorable melody. It's something that should be considered when trying out different lines. Just as much tension and release can be created in a great rhythm as can a great melody/harmony. There are numerous ways to approach a rhythm. We're going to talk in terms of phrases. Phrases are short melodies usually one or two bars long (can be longer or course). This is usually the germ of an idea and the rest of the melody will be an extension or answer to this idea. This is just one piece of a melody which has numerous phrases that go together to create a complete musical thought.

Early, On, or Late

When it comes to writing melodic phrases, there are only three ways to place it in a piece of music. That is, the phrase can start before the beat, right on the beat, or after the beat. Let's look at all three.

1. Before - this is when the phrase will start before the downbeat. It will usually start around or after the 3rd beat in the bar and  have it's 'target' or principle note on the downbeat of the next bar. It can continue after that but the emphasis is on the downbeat with the fist notes before being considered 'pick-up notes'.

2. Right On - naturally this is when the melody starts right on the beat. Again we're talking about the downbeat or the 'one'. This can be effective in putting more emphasis on that particular lyric since it's right on the downbeat. Metal does this all the time. The rest of the phrase can be on the beat or syncopated, it doesn't matter since you have that all important note right on the bear. Also note that when you start a note on this bear, it will naturally have more emphasis because of where you put it.

3. After - this is anything after the downbeat. Be it on the 'and of 1' and anything beyond. Keep in mind that the principle note of the melody must be in that bar. For example, if you start on after the 3rd beat and the phrase continues into the next bar, we're probably talking about #1 above: before the beat. Because these occur after the downbeat, they can have a delayed effect where you hear the chord (or harmony) first and then you hear the melody.

Of course there are other places in the bar where a melody can start or stop but these are the major ones. You'll find that any other combination will fit into one of these three. For example, if you start the melody right on the 2, it will feel like it's 'late' even though you started on a beat. It's because western music focuses on the downbeat and that has the most emphasis. Even highly syncopated music has this downbeat emphasis inherit in it. That's why it feels syncopated in the first place. 

Straight or Syncopated

Let's start with the basics: straight and syncopated. Writing a melody with a straight rhythm simply means that the rhythms lies primarily on the beat. That means that most notes from the melody will be placed on the beat with extras off the beat. The melody doesn't necessarily have to start on a beat, just that the focus is on the beat . A syncopated rhythm is one that has the principle notes placed off the beat. You can have both in a song; in fact you can have both in one phrase. But, generally the song will have a feel of one or the other. This alone can define a genre of music. For example Latin music uses syncopation so much that it's part of the style. If you want to take a pop song and 'make it' into a Latin flavored affair, one good way is to take the straight rhythm on the melody and syncopate it. Most the time pop and rock songs will have straight melodies. This is a general part of the style but like mentioned before, syncopation can be injected anytime.


Another part of melody writing is range. This is the distance between the lowest note in your melody and the highest. This is just the distance between the two notes; the actual notes don't matter. For example the melody will usually be lower when you have a male vocal compared to a female but the male vocal song may have an overall greater range. Generally slow ballads will have a greater melodic range than straight ahead rock songs. Always consider the range of your melody. It's easy to overboard with this when writing melodies with an instrument but remember that when writing songs, a huge number of great melodies don't have that much of a range. A lot of them will usually fit inside of an octave. It's more important what you do with the notes compared to how high or low the singer can sing.

The Long and Short of It

Often songwriters will choose to change the overall rhythm of the melody from one section to another to introduce some variety. For example the song many have short rhythmic phrases in the verse then have long melodic phrases in the chorus. Quite often the verse will have a short range whereas the chorus will have a greater range; or, just a higher range All songs we listen to have varying amounts of tension and release. These are best when married with a great lyric. Going from a straight melody to a syncopated melody will also add some interest or tension if you want it to! Always try different variations of notes and rhythms when writing melodies; they're both important.There are many other ideas on this subject that I could go into but start from here. Next time we'll go further into scales, note choice, harmony and rhythms.