Want to learn how to write catchy melodies for pop songs? Keep reading — you're about to find out the secrets to writing melodies that people can't stop humming.
First, we'll discuss how to write good melodies, then we'll analyze the tune for today's article, which is my original song "Maybe we'd be together".
Make sure to watch the video above for the audio examples.
Theory first. Then I'll show you how I made it, and why I made it that way.
Are there rules for writing melodies?
The following tips are not rules, just guidelines, because making music is not an exact science — it's very subjective.
In my opinion, melody is the most important part of writing a song, especially in pop music. It's like the theme of your song, the most memorable element.
Not the lyrics, the harmony, the drums, the mixing and mastering, or even the marketing and promotion to your audience.
It's the melody that will make people hum your song all day and remember you. So that's where I spend the most time in my songwriting.
As songwriters, we need to hook the listeners with a catchy and interesting melody or else they'll get bored and stop listening.
There's no point in having a great arrangement or great mix if we don't hook the listener in the first place.
What makes a catchy melody
Even though the melodies you'll make will reveal a lot of your personal taste, your musical background and your references, there are techniques to come up with catchy melodies.
First, you need to know what kind of emotions you want to express.
Is it going to be mostly a stable song? Goods vibes, good feelings?
Or is it an unstable song about something negative or sad?
The melody, harmony, rhythm and everything else in your song have to be cohesive with your lyrics to emphasize that main feeling.
How to express feelings through melody
Some people like to start by playing some chords, then trying to come up with a melody that sits well on top. But in my experience, that seems to limit my creativity.
It's kind of easy to fall for the trap of playing only notes that sound stable against the pre-made chords, and the song may end up sounding too much like nursery rhymes.
Don't get me wrong, the simplicity of nursery rhymes is an amazing thing for pop music.
But if the melody is all happy and perfect all the time, if there's no tension and resolution, then it's not going to be that interesting to listen to.
For me it works better the other way around.
I like to design the melody first, then experiment with different chords afterwards, using the chords to give color to the melody.
That's because chords — the harmony — can change the mood of the melody.
They provide support to emphasize the feelings we're trying to convey with the melody.
The secrets to making memorable and catchy melodies
The essence of writing catchy melodies comes down to a few things:
- It's easy to memorize and sing along;
- It has some repetition;
- It let's you catch your breath every now and then;
- It uses call-and-response.
Let's talk about each one of these topics.
Easy to memorize and sing along
If a melody is too complicated and people have a hard time memorizing and singing along, most will lose interest.
The same thing happens if you're playing notes constantly and you never pause, there's no silence and people can't catch their breaths.
Listeners actually need a break to process each line of the melody, otherwise it's just overwhelming.
Also, a singer would run out of breath trying to sing an unstoppable melody.
Want catchy melodies? Keep them simple
If you actively listen to a few top of the chart songs, you'll notice how easy it is to follow the melodies.
There's usually a clear direction: each line either goes up or down in pitch, or stays around the same note.
The note changes mostly happen in small intervals, like a third or fifth at the most. For example, going from C to G.
And just a few calculated note changes happen in larger intervals for drama purposes.
There's nothing keeping you from using larger intervals like a whole octave up or down. It's art anyway. You can do whatever you want in your music.
But the most popular songs don't usually have big leaps where the notes suddenly jump an octave higher.
Of course there are exceptions, like a song by Adele, on that one impactul moment during the climax where she hits the high note and we get goosebumps.
But even her songs have pretty simple catchy melodies and are very hummable most of the time.
That's why the melody in the example song for this article, "Maybe we'd be together" is so simple.
Repetition and the "mere exposure" effect
Besides being simple, the melodies in pop songs are repeated over and over again. The more you hear them, the more chances you have of remembering.
Just think about your favorite song and how many times it repeats the chorus.
Now, how many times have you listened to that song before? You've probably heard that song's chorus a hundred times already.
That's what psicology calls "the mere exposure effect".
People tend to prefer things they've been exposed to before. The more you hear it, the more you'll like it.
Repetition is key.
We just have to make small changes and variations so it doesn't bore the listeners.
A good rule of thumb is: if you repeat a melody for the third time in a row, make sure to change something. At least the pitch of a note, or the timing.
Notice the amount of repetition in the last chorus of this episode's song (video above).
Tension and Release
Now, before we talk about call-and-response, we need to understand tension and release. Stable and unstable notes.
Stable emotions, stable notes
Whenever you want your melody to sound more stable — because that supports the emotions you're trying to express with the lyrics — use notes that belong to the tonic chord of that key.
For example, if you're song is in the key of C major, the most stable notes in your melody will be the ones that make the C major chord: C, E and G.
The first, third and fifth note of the scale.
Those will be perfect when you're singing words that convey stable, positive feelings like happiness, peace, euphoria.
Unstable emotions, unstable notes
But if you want to express unstable emotions — if the lyrics talk about sadness, jealousy, heartbreaks etc —, using the other notes in your melody will help you achieve that.
So, in the same example key of C major, the unstable notes are D, F, A and B. The second, fourth, sixth and seventh note of the scale.
In the example song, I built the pre-chorus focused around the second and fourth notes of the scale, unstable notes, to create the tension that will be released just before the chorus hits.
Then when the chorus hits and I'm singing happy thoughts like "smashing grapes in France" or "dancing in Berlin", I chose the fifth note of the scale, which belongs to the tonic chord, so it's super stable and reinforces the lyrics.
But as soon as the idea changes to questionable things like "I just can't help but wonder where we could have been", the melody rises to the sixth note of the scale.
That is tense and unstable.
Then the melody rests on the seventh note in the end of the line, and that's the most unstable note within the scale.
Not to mention that when I sing the words "maybe we'd be together", the notes chosen were once again very unstable.
Mostly the sixth, second and fourth note of the scale.
Notes that don't belong to the current chord
Now, one quick sidenote, if your melody has notes that don't belong to the chord being played, it will sound unstable too, to a certain degree, depending on the interval you're using.
But we're not talking about chords and harmony yet, we'll keep it simple for now and save that for another article.
The most shocking notes in a melody
Maybe your lyrics are about something disturbing or horrible or extremely painful or just weird and unusual.
When that's the case, you can go outside of that scale. Notes like C#, D# and so on, in the key of C major, for instance, will make your music sound more exotic.
For a good example of this, listen to Poker Face by Lady Gaga — verse and pre-chorus.
So don't limit yourself to the notes in the scale but be careful using notes outside of the scale in your melodies.
It can easily get pretty creepy. Unless that's what you're aiming for.
Call and response equals catchy melodies
Now that we've covered the difference between stable and unstable notes, we can move on to the concept of call-and-response.
You may have noticed already that most pop music happens to be a form of conversation.
And it's not just the lyrics. The melody and rhythm too.
So there's this pattern where one line of melody seems to be answering the line before.
It's like they're having a conversation. And that's why it's known as call and response.
One line of melody functions as a question and creates some tension. Maybe it goes up in pitch and rests on an unstable note.
Then the next line is the answer and resolves that tension by going down in pitch and resting on a stable note, for example.
Then another question, and a different answer.
Each line makes the melody move towards the next one, by using these microtensions that keep the listener in constant curiosity of what comes next.
That's why it's so important to use call-and-response in our music.
Ways to create call-and-response
It could be done for instance by using a different direction in pitch for each line of melody.
Or a different rhythm, or the same melody on a different octave, or even a different singer.
In the example song, listen to the Outro section.
Pay attention to how one line calls and the next line responds. They work in pairs, even though it's just one person singing.
This creates contrast and keeps things moving.
One last tip for writing pop music: create contrast among the sections of your song.
So if you use a certain melody during the verse and a different one during the chorus, and bridge, you're helping create that contrast.
Check out this entirely different melody in our example song's bridge:
Usually the bridge has an entirely different melody. Or the same melody and a different harmony, or different rhythmic pattern.
And since the chorus is often the part of the song with the most energy, it's very common in pop music for it to have higher pitched melodies than verses.
So save the best for the chorus. It's not mandatory but it helps lifting the energy level so the song has a powerful chorus.
In the example song, look at the shapes of the melodies in the verse, pre-chorus and chorus. It's visually noticeable that the chorus happens on a higher pitch range.
Final thoughts on writing catchy melodies for pop songs
Besides these techniques and guidelines to design catchy melodies, this task also requires lots of experimenting, trial and error, playing your melodies over and over again, and making small changes here and there until you're happy with the final product.
I never come up with the final product right away.
It always starts as an extremely simple idea, which then gets developed into something more engaging.
It takes time and work. So don't fall in love with your first idea, alright?
Now it's your turn to write catchy melodies
Go write some catchy melodies for your songs and let me hear them!
Also, if you have any questions, write them down in the comments below. I hope this was helpful.
If you need help with making memorable pop music, don't hesitate to check out the resources available on my website.