The Secret to Writing Emotional Melodies for Pop Music


Thales Matos


You're about to find out how to write emotional melodies for pop music. Follow these guidelines and songwriting techniques to make memorable songs. 

This article focus on the role of each note in a scale in the context of storytelling and expressing feelings through a melody.

This will help connect your lyrics to the sounds, combining them to convey the feelings you choose to express — to make sure your words really mean what they were supposed to.

This is not an exact science. It's actually very subjective and open to interpretation.

So there's no rule. Just guidelines and tools. 

Very useful tools that help me make music every single day.

What makes an emotional melody

I remember when I read this book called The Craft of Songwriting, by Scarlet Keys — a professor at Berklee College of Music.

the craft of songwriting by scarlet keys

It opened my eyes to this concept, then I started actively listening to a bunch of pop songs and suddenly it all made sense.

I started thinking of melodies as the tone of my voice in a conversation

Whenever you're making a melody for your lyrics, think about how you would say those words in a conversation.

Which words would make the pitch of your voice change? For instance, when you ask a question and your voice gets higher in pitch.

When we get angry, having a fight, we go higher too. When we're saying something tender, we talk in a lower pitch. Right?

What if I told you it's possible to connect these conversational tones with the scale degrees to emphasize the meaning and feeling of each word in your melody?

Connecting intonation and scale degrees for emotional melodies

Think about a major scale. It's made of 7 notes that repeat on each octave of a keyboard, for example.

If we take the scale of C major — for simplicity —, it's all the white keys on the keyboard.

c major scale

Each note that belongs to the scale of C major has a role, based on its relationship to C, which is the first degree, called the Tonic.

scale degrees are the key to writing emotional melodies

The second scale degree is the Supertonic, which is D.

The third scale degree is the Mediant, which is E.

The fourth is the Subdominant, which is F.

The fifth is the Dominant, which is G.

The sixth is the Submediant, which is A.

And the seventh is the Leading Tone, which is B.

The relationship between scale degrees and tension

Each degree carries a different level of tension or intensity when used in a melody. Some of them sound stable, some sound unstable.

Unstable scale degrees for an emotional melody

The unstable degrees are the second, which sounds like it's asking to move to the first degree.

In other words, when you play the second degree, it creates this tension that wants to resolve by playing the first degree instead, which feels like home.

The fourth degree is also unstable and wants to resolve its tension by moving to the third degree.

The sixth degree is unstable and wants to move down to the fifth degree.

And the seventh is super unstable and wants to move back to the first degree.

scale degrees resolution for emotional melodies

Now, the first, third and fifth degrees are like home in your melody.

Every time you move your melody away from home, it wants to go back. These are the stable notes.

stable scale degrees

When to use each scale degree for emotional melodies

If your lyrics are talking about good feelings, stable feelings, it makes sense to use the stable degrees of the scale you chose.

On the other hand, if the words require a little more sauce — if they're more emotional and tense —, the unstable degrees will help you achieve that effect.

They bring the emotion and drama to the melody.

If you sing the same words using different scale degrees, you'll notice how they almost seem to mean different things.

Watch the video above to listen to a comparison.

I sang the words "I'm fine" using only the first and fifth degrees of the scale — stable notes —, against the C major chord.

singing a short melody made of stable notes

I sounded fine.

Then I sang it again, but using the sixth and seventh degrees while playing the same chord.

singing a short melody made of unstable notes

Am I really fine? Something must be wrong and I'm not telling you...

The example shows how different scale degrees can change the meaning of what's being said.

So make sure to use both stable and unstable notes in your emotional melodies.

If you only pick stable notes, it may become boring. If you only pick unstable notes for your melody, it will sound extremely tense.

Having a back and forth of tension and resolution keeps things interesting.

Usually the notes that bring the most emotion and tension to melodies are the sixth and seventh scale degrees.

So maybe save those for the words with the strongest emotional meaning.

Especially if they are the highest notes of a certain phrase. It's almost like you're raising your voice in a conversation.

Pop Music overusing the Supertonic for Emotional Melodies

As the musician and youtuber Andrew Huang pointed out in one of his videos, the tension caused by the second degree of the scale has been overused in melodies of pop music during the last 10 years.

andrew huang supertonic in pop music

That was one of those eye-opening videos that I'm glad I watched.

The supertonic brings out a light-not-so-stressful kind of tension that actually sounds good when played against any chord within the scale. 

And it's surrounded by stable notes, so it resolves very easily by going up to the third degree, or down to the first degree.

supertonic tension release in pop music melodies

So many pop songs have used this trick lately. If you listen to The Weeknd you'll notice most of his songs are built around the second degree.

Well, maybe that's the pop note, like blues has the blues note.

How harmony affects the emotion of a melody

Harmony can definitely affect how we perceive the melody.

You can use chords to soften the tension during the unstable notes of a melody, if the note belongs to the chord.

For example, still in the key of C major, if you play the note D over a D minor chord, that note belongs to the chord, so it won't sound so unstable.

The same strategy works backwards.

If you play a stable note over a chord that doesn't include that note, the melody will sound more unstable. Like singing the note C over the E minor chord.

Even though C is the first degree of the scale and the most stable note, it won't feel that stable against the E minor because it doesn't belong to the chord.

Coloring the mood of the melody

The chords will also color the mood of the melody, even when the notes are included. 

When I sang "I'm fine" using the stable first and fifth degrees against the C major chord — which includes those notes — , that sounded super stable and believable, right?

On the other hand, when I sang the same words and melody but played the A minor chord instead — which is the sixth chord in the scale of C major — it sounded sad.

It brings out a completely different mood and meaning.

If you listened to the examples, you probably felt that for sure I was not fine, right? Just pretending to be.

So that's the whole idea.

Use the right melody notes and chords at the right time, and you get to decide what your listeners will feel (to a certain degree, of course) when they hear your song. 

Stable notes when singing stable words or phrases. Unstable notes when singing unstable lyrics.

If you use the notes and chords without purpose, you risk having your listeners feel something entirely different than what you intended when you wrote the song.

Now it's your turn to write emotional melodies

All the elements in your song should support the narrative and the emotion you're trying to convey.

And with this music theory toolbox that's now available for you, you're guaranteed to sound like you actually mean your lyrics. 

Go make some catchy melodies and show me the results later.

As always, if you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.

Also, if you want to become a pop music producer and need help with that, take advantage of the resources available on my website.


Thales Matos

August 8, 2022


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