It’s all about that Melody, not the Bass

By James Torselli

Writing a memorable melody line

When I started writing songs at around sixteen I would start with a chord pattern, maybe with a few guitar line ideas and work out how I would like the drums to sound. I would then meet up with my band and we would start structuring the song, but we would constantly refer back to bands we liked.

“I want to use that bass sound the guy from Muse has, Blink would palm mute it there, Funeral for a Friend use these cool 9 chords... we should too!”

What we were doing was sensible to an extent, we all need inspiration at times and we learn from listening to other music, but we were making two major errors.  Firstly, instead of gaining ideas from our favourite artists we were just copying them, secondly we were ignoring the most important part of these reference songs, the vocals.

But what about the top line?

Why is a memorable melody line important?

When most people listen to music they are listening to the vocals and only hearing the rest of the song. This isn't to say the backing track is unimportant, it supports the vocal and provides rhythm and harmony, but I doubt many of you thought that synth pad marking out the Am C G chord progression in the chorus of Taylor Swift's “Shake It Off” was what made the song stick in your head! No, it was the top line that made you remember the song.  This is only natural! We always hone our ears to other humans and that's why writing a memorable melody line should be your number 1 priority.

This is why it can be a good idea to try not sitting down at the piano, or picking up your guitar, and write a melody completely free from chords. This will probably feel awkward at first, but by not worrying about instrumentation - you can concentrate on making your melody stand on its own and not rely on chords and other parts to be interesting. Listen to “Bang Bang” by Jessie J, apart from a guitar at the end of every four bars playing D# E D# E and a sample at the start of every two bars on a C, the vocals are the only pitched instrument in the track.

Once you have a melody you are happy with you can start adding the chords. You can go straight to the ones that will obviously fit under the melody, but you can also try shifting one or two to start introducing some different harmony. Build yourself a working verse and chorus, record it and then listen back to it. If there are any parts that you feel are not as good, rework the section. A trick I sometimes use is to play a chorus to a friend or family member and then after a couple of minutes ask them to sing the melody back to me. If they can get 50% or so right I'll carry on with the song, if not I'll scrap it or strip it for parts if I think a particular line was good.

A memorable melody line is important no matter what genre of music you are producing.  Listen to the top line in the choruses of “Stuck In The Middle” by Four Year Strong and Radiohead's “Just”. Even though the instrumentation is completely different to my two previous examples, the vocal is still really hooky and would be capable of holding its own in a much sparser arrangement.

None of this is to say getting a drum loop and building your track up from the bottom is the wrong way to write, just be sure you give that top line the attention it requires. Always trim a great backing track to suit excellent melodies, not the other way round!



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