Songwriting Basics: Melody
Melody is a series of notes from the scale of a particular key. A good melody has enough repetition to be memorable and enough variety to be interesting. If I sing one note over and over that would be easy enough to remember, but way too boring. On the other hand, I could sing all kinds of notes up and down the scale and sound good without being able to remember their sequence. Finding the balance is key.
Depending on your song’s structure, you will need two or three different melodies: one for the verses, one for the chorus and one for the bridge. Create as many melodies as you can. I am constantly recording melodic ideas on my phone to use at a later time. Don’t assume your first melody is going to be best for the song. Having more melodies than you need allows you to be selective and purposeful. Also, one of the extra melodies may make for a good instrumental or intro riff.
Consider the the theme of the song when writing your melody. If your song is about the joy of the Lord, please do not have it sound sad! Unless sarcasm is your goal, your melody should communicate the same message as your lyrics. It gives us additional emotional content that the lyrics alone cannot provide.
Melodies are expressed in phrases. Organizing the phrases is a way to develop the melody. If we name the phrases A and B, we might create a melody like this: ABAB or AAAB. Notice how both examples show repetition and variety. Other examples could be AABAAC or ABCABD.
Question and Answer is a type of melody where the first phrase (Question) ends on a high note similar to the vocal inflection used when asking a question. The second phrase (Answer) may start similarly, but ends on a low note often the starting note of the Question.
Worship songs are most congregational friendly when they are written within one octave. More notes is not necessarily better. Many melodies only use five notes. A singable melody is what we are after. Be creative and have fun crafting a great melody!
Check out more songwriting posts on Theme and Structure.
Have you started writing? What are you waiting for?
Spontaneous choruses. What are they and how do you use them? First the name is rather self-explanatory. A spontaneous chorus is a chorus which is written and sung in the moment without rehearsal. Developing spontaneous choruses is a skill that comes very naturally to some people. If that’s not you, don’t worry, you can learn how to write and use them effectively. Another option is to delegate chorus writing to a capable vocalist on your team.
As with choruses from existing songs, our spontaneous ones need three things: melody, lyric and a chord progression. Typically, we will borrow an existing chord progression from the song we are singing before the spontaneous chorus. This isn’t always the case, but it is easiest and you need to tell your team if you are planning to use something different. An example of a good chord progression is: C G Am F or I V vi IV. It has a circular motion and is simple enough to create many memorable melodies.
When it comes to melody, we must think of structure. A good melody is easy enough to remember. Catchy is another word that describes good melodies. Spontaneous choruses with hard arduous melodies are not fun for anyone. So in our structure, we must incorporate some repetition. Too much and it will be boring. Too little and will be unfocused. An example of good repetition can be found in the melodic structure we call question and answer.
As children we were taught to raise the inflection of our voice when asking a question. The same is true with this type of melody. The first line ends on a high note (a question). To answer the question we can repeat the melody only ending on a low note instead. Hum the tune Mary had a Little Lamb to yourself. Notice the question and answer structure. What other songs can you think of having a similar melodic structure? We can also call this type of melody: AB.
Following the AB line of thinking, we could create many other melodic structures like: AAAB or ABAC or ABCABC. Be creative and recognize what works well. We will use this same structure for lyrics too. Here’s an example of AAAB:
You are good
You are good
You are good
And Your mercy endures
The first three lines are the same. Same words. Same melody. Only the fourth line is different. This is an example of good repetition with just enough variety. Try creating your own melody with the lyrics and chord progression above.
Moving on to lyrics, scripture is very helpful. Something extremely profound happens when singing the Word. It gets caught in the human spirit and renews the mind. The other consideration is discerning what God is saying in the moment during worship. Holy Spirit will bring scriptures or other words and ideas to our minds if we are listening. Use those thoughts to create a spontaneous chorus.
Now you might be feeling overwhelmed if you’ve never done this before. That’s okay. Give it some time. Meanwhile, you can practice your chorus writing ability with this baby step: modify an existing chorus to express a new meaning. An example of this could be the old chorus I Exalt Thee. Change the “I” to “we”. It’s not a big change, but it could be spontaneous and bring a stronger sense of community to the corporate worship setting.
Another example, singing the chorus from How Great is Our God, change “is our” to “are You”. How great are You God // Lord we sing, how great are You God // and all will sing, how great, how great are You God. This change redirects the focus from singing about God to singing to Him. There are many songs that you could try these two changes on. Practice with those first before trying to launch into a truly spontaneous chorus.
Spontaneous choruses can be used during or in-between songs in worship. Incorporating them into your leading will bring a new dimension of worship and greater awareness of God’s presence and involvement.