Most definitions of “melody” describe the concept as a “musically pleasing sequence of notes.” Which is true, but incomplete. A song’s melody is its soul, what makes a piece unique, and what usually sticks with listeners more than any other element of a composition. In basic guitar and vocal arrangements, the melody is usually sung, and is probably the part of the song that you would whistle or hum if you had a tune stuck in your head.
If this all sounds intimidating, don’t worry. With a few easy exercises, melody will be transformed from an unapproachable concept to a songwriter’s best friend.
Read to the end of this post, and you will be well on your way to creating your own original melodies. You can also check out our other blog post “Songwriting Tips for Beginners: The Art of Stealing“
Exercise 1: Spot The Melody
Throughout this exercise, I will use holiday carols as my examples, since their melodies are so easily recognized. For our first example, listen to Andy Williams’ version of “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.”
Example 1: It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
The melody in this piece starts at 6 seconds, when Andy Williams declares “It’s the most wonderful time…” The vocalist carries the melody throughout this piece, and it is easy to distinguish with Andy’s voice so prominently ringing through background harmonies. Notice that the melody is what you probably associate with this song, and what you would sing to identify this carol.
For our second example, listen to Nat King Cole’s “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”
Example 2: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
In this piece, the melody begins at 14 seconds when Cole’s vocals enter. How can we tell this is the melody? Does Nat’s singing make you want to break into dance, or want to sing along? Can you recognize this song easily by the notes and rhythms you hear Nat King Cole crooning?
For our last example, listen to Frank Sinatra’s version of “Let it Snow.”
Example 3: Let it Snow
Where does the melody begin in this piece? How can you tell? Answer in the comments! If you are having trouble identifying where the melody starts, listen to another version of this song. What is almost exactly the same about every version of “Let it Snow,” no matter whose version you listen to?
Exercise 2: Variations on a Theme
Now that you have practiced recognizing melodies in the larger framework of a song, it is time to take the first step towards writing your own melodies: tackling the “note” side of melodies head on. To begin your journey into composing melodies, we’ll first start by varying a melody of an existing song.
For this exercise, we will use the song “Jingle Bells,” as the basic chord structure of this song will make it easy to create a melodic variation.
Example 1: JINGLE BELLS
If you are able to do so, strum along with the video provided above on your guitar. Notice that the notes of the vocal melody fit nicely into each chord: every note in the melody of the song “Jingle Bells” is easy to place in the chord that is strummed while that note rings.
Once you feel comfortable playing the chords along with “Jingle Bells,” it is time to start working on varying the notes in the song’s melody. To vary the melody, simply sing a different note than the one that appears in the song, but keep the song’s same rhythm.
For help deciding which note to sing, look back at what chord you are playing. Play any note that fits in that chord. If you are unsure of what notes fit in any chord, play the chord on your guitar, and then pluck a single string in that chord to ring out one note. Now, use this note to replace one of the notes you sing in the melody. Congratulations, you have just made your first variation on a theme!
If you need an example, sing a “B” note when the lyric “snow” first appears. (If you are unsure of what a B sounds like, pluck the second string on your guitar, and try to copy the sound you hear with your voice.) By singing a different note than originally appeared in the melody, you have varied the melody itself!
Now, try switching up more notes in the melody of “Jingle Bells.” You will notice that the more notes you switch out, the less the song will sound like the “Jingle Bells” you know.
By practicing varying themes, you’ve learned how to place notes in chords, half of what you need to create your own melodies! In part 2 of this guide, we will tackle developing your own rhythms, and creating melodies that are truly unique and original.