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Writing "catchy" Melodies 

What makes a song "catchy?" There is no perfect formula to be used to automatically make a song catchy. However, we may look at songs in the style that suits you and analyze them with the hopes of learning what elements we find. 

Letís look at one of the most simple, well know songs melodies, the "happy birthday" song:

Key of C: Time signature ĺ Letter in () will designate the note in the scale. G^ will designate a octave higher than the previous note G. Also, the 2nd letter will designate the notes length w = whole note h = half note q = quarter note and e = eighth note *h = dotted half note 

Therefore (G-e) will designate a G note an eighth note long. 

(G-e) (G-e) (A-q) (G-q) (C-q) (B-*h)

Hap-py birth-day to you

(G-e) (G-e) (A-q) (G-q) (D-q) (C-*h)

Hap-py birth-day to you

(G-e) (G-e) (G^-q) (E-q) (C-q) (B-q) (A-h)

Hap-py birth-day dear some-one

(F-e) (F-e) (E-q) (C-q) (D-q) (C-*h)

Hap-py birth-day to you


What can we learn from one of the most memorable of all melodies? 

The 1st 2 lines of this 4 line melody are very similar and "set up" the tune. The third line takes it on itís journey. It has a skip from a G note to an octave higher G note on the word "birth" and then provides some tension on the last note of that line with the A note. 

The tension is resolved with the last line and the melody resolves very nicely on the "tonic" note of the scale which is the C. The tonic is the 1st note in the scale and the "home" if you will of any scale, the 1st note of a scale. 

This melody spans 1 octave. The lowest note is a G and the highest note is a G twice as high, or one octave above the low G. Make note that a good melody will have enough of a span to keep things interesting, but also will not span to far from itís highest and lowest note so that people can easily sing along as well. 

Many people have trouble singing the song the "Star spangled banner because itís span is so large. The song spans an octave and a half. In the key of C, it would start on a low C, pass by itís octave C and go on to the G note. When singing that song many people have to choose the key very carefully so that they can hit the low note C as well as the high note G. 

The problem is that many people donít have much more if even a octave and a half range for their voice to begin with. If youíre song spans one and a half octaves or more you may find people have a hard time singing it which may not be a wise thing. If your song spans only a half of an octave, it may not have enough range to make the melody interesting. 


Basic theory

Letís cover a small amount of theory for a minute to help us study melodies. 

There are 12 notes total. 

There are octaves above and below those 12 notes. An "octave is like "twice as high" or "twice as low" as a given note. Itís where things start all over again. Imagine singing the word "my" and holding it.

Someone else at the same time singing the same note and word but twice as high, would be an octave higher. Imagine someone singing the word with you, but an octave lower. Scales generally carry a selection of the 12 notes. 

For instance, the major scale in the key of C uses: C D E F G A B in it. 7 notes. There are sharps and flats in between some notes. In between C and D on a piano is a black note called C#. A C sharp is a C note that is sharp, or a half tone higher than C. Itís "in between C and D. A D flat is the same note as a C# as itís also in between C and D. 

Keep in mind that between E and F as well as B and C there is no note though. That leaves us with the following 12 notes:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B

Which is also the same as:

C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B

The "b" is the "flat" symbol.

The major scale is comprised of this formula starting at the tonic note (the beginning note of the key):
whole step - whole step - half step - whole step - whole step - whole step - half step

A "whole step" skips over a note, and a "half step" would go directly to the next note. For instance, a "whole step from A would end up at B, a "half step" from A would end up at A#. So the "C major scale" would go:

C whole step D whole step E half step F whole step G whole step A whole step B half step C

At the end of the formula you see that you end up back at the starting note, but it will be "twice as high" or an "octave higher" than the original note. 

Sing the "do re mi" and youíll get the same thing. What you notice in the C major scale is there are no accidentals. An "accidental" is a sharp or a flat note. 

On a piano, you would play only the white keys, as the black keys are sharp or flat notes. Other major scales are not like this. 

Let'í examine the "" major scale to illustrate that:

D whole step E whole step F# half step G whole step A whole step B whole step C# half step D

Looking at the D major scale, D is the 1 in the scale, E is the 2nd, F# is the 4th and so on. So if I said the "4th tone in the D major scale" I would be referring to the G note. 

Once you understand that, you can easily transpose a song and still understand what note youíre talking about. Imagine writing a melody to your song and having another person try and sing it that has a higher, or lower voice than yours. 

Theory will help you do that. For instance, imagine that you wrote the song in the key of C, and normally held the 2nd tone which is D. The singer wants to sing the song in the key of D instead. 

By knowing theory, you would know that the 2nd tone of the D scale is E so you can easily explain your melody to the singer and musicians etc.

Try and figure out the E major scale, G and so on yourself using that formula. 

I canít encourage you enough to study "theory" farther. Learning different scales other than the major scale, the circle of 4ths and 5ths as well as chord construction and so on will be valuable to you as you continue to study and write music. 

With this book we are keeping our focus on songwriting, as "theory" is a book all by itís self. Now, we will put that theory to use. Letís look at the song again:

(G-e) (G-e) (A-q) (G-q) (C-q) (B-*h)

Hap-py birth-day to you

(G-e) (G-e) (A-q) (G-q) (D-q) (C-*h)

Hap-py birth-day to you

(G-e) (G-e) (G^-q) (E-q) (C-q) (B-q) (A-h)

Hap-py birth-day dear some-one

(F-e) (F-e) (E-q) (C-q) (D-q) (C-*h)

Hap-py birth-day to you

Now we see that the song is in the key of C, but the melody starts on the 5th tone of that scale which is G. 

We see that the song resolves nicely to the 1st tone of the scale C. That is why it sounds like it ends on "home base." 

When you study melodies of songs you like, write out the number of the scales so that you can learn and analyze them as well. If you are looking to resolve the sound youíll know where to go, if youíre looking for certain notes that provide tension you can consider those notes and tie them into chord progressions along with the melody and so on. 

Your ideal melody is the one that people listen to quickly, are drawn into and find the irresistible urge to hum, sing and whistle for hours after hearing it. 

The melody is interesting, and something they can duplicate themselves as itís "singable" because itís range does not span to greatly. 

Published with permission form Dave Byers copyright 2001


About the Author

Dave Byers is the author of the book "Songwriting
Fundamentals"


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