7 Ways to Write Better Melodies: Techniques & Rules
“There are only a few notes. Just variations on a theme.”
— John Lennon
Ahh, the elusive task of how to write better melodies. As producers, we are all interested in writing better, more memorable melodies for our music — after all, the melody is what listeners will remember, and what will keep them pressing play over and over again.
It seems like a lot of producers have a knack for melody-writing. They’re catchy, yet sophisticated; they’re simple, yet nuanced; they feel familiar, but they’re uniquely fit to the song.
What are good melody writing techniques that you can practice? Are there rules you can follow to write better melodies? The answer is yes. And guess what?!
This isn’t a music theory article.
That's because this is an article that will provide you with practical, actionable tips to improve the melodies that you are writing today.
So, let's do this. Here are my top 7 favorite techniques and rules to help you write better melodies.
1. Expand on a Loop or Theme
Great melodies are often repetitive, but they still remain interesting. How is this even possible?!
Here, I abide by the “duplicate and change” approach. Start with a one bar melody that you like and think is catchy. Next, duplicate it to a second bar, and change one thing in that second bar. Maybe it resolves to a different note, maybe there is some pitch glide between two of the notes, maybe you switch up the timing on one or two of the notes.
Happy with that edit? Great, now you have an interesting two bar melody. Time to rinse and repeat.
Duplicate the two bar melody onto a third and fourth bar, and change something in those two new bars. Again, maybe a different note, different slightly different timing, etc.
Now you have an interesting four bar melody. See what I’m getting at here? The great part is that the melody all based around your one bar idea. This kind of melody will be simple and easy to remember, but still ever-changing and interesting.
I recommend using this strategy to make 4-bar or 8-bar melodies. But, trust your taste — sometimes longer or shorter can work too.
2. Reference Other Songs (...and Steal Like An Artist)
Surprise, surprise, surprise — you’re being encouraged to reference in a Hyperbits article. We talk about referencing in articles on arrangement, loudness, and mixing, as well as all throughout the Hyperbits Masterclass. because it's one of the most effective strategies to improve your productions.
Every song melody you hear (and like) is one that is up for grabs to reference and borrow.
Try remaking the melody you hear, and see if you can understand why you like it so much — maybe it’s the rhythm of the notes, or maybe it’s the fact that it’s playing one note outside of the key of the track. Whatever it is, take that concept and apply it to your own melody.
Or, better yet, modify their melody to make it your own. Transpose it to a new key, and maybe take a couple notes you like (or take all their notes and write them in a new order). As long as you transform it so the two don’t bear an obvious relationship (don’t do THIS), you are in the clear.
Struggling to learn how to write better melodies? Packs like the Unison MIDI Pack come filled with ready-to-use, interesting melodic concepts. We stand behind MIDI packs so much that we even included one within the Hyperbits Creative Suite that we launched this summer.
It’s probably unlikely that you can drag-and-drop a melody from a MIDI pack and it will be perfect for your song. Rather, I recommend using these melodies as starting points. Find one from a pack that is interesting, drop it in, and make it your own.
Not sure what techniques you can use to actually make it your own? Here are a few:
- Change the rhythm of the notes to match the rhythm of other instruments in your song (a drum groove, other instrument rhythms, etc)
- Transpose it to a new key
- The same transformations I mentioned in Tip #1: change the note the melody resolves to, add some pitch glide, change around the timing of a couple notes
- Combine multiple MIDI pack melodies into one
Think of MIDI Packs kind of like synth presets. Are they good in their own right? Yes. Could they work if put directly into your song? Maybe. But, if you tweak them a bit, will they fit better into your song? Almost certainly.
4. Use a MIDI Keyboard
I’m a little old-school. There is simply no substitute for tickling the ivories and expressively jamming out some melody ideas on a MIDI keyboard, even if you don’t play piano.
Let me repeat that: this melody writing technique also applies to producers who do not play the piano!
So, how on earth are you supposed to play out melody ideas on a piano if your attempts to play generally sound like a baby bashing the keys?
Transpose any other MIDI information (maybe chords or bass) you have to A Minor or C Major (so only the white keys on the piano are getting used), loop out that MIDI information for about five minutes, hit record, and jam away on the white keys.
Most importantly, Do your best to play with some melody ideas for a few minutes. When you’re done, listen back to what you did, and almost without fail, you’ll find something interesting hidden amongst the noise that you can build into a cool melody.
That said, when it comes to learning how to write better melodies, this might be favorite technique because it allows you to be more of a musician, without actually being one.
5. Get Creative with MIDI FX
Your DAW has a host of MIDI FX that can take a simple MIDI idea and spit out cool melodic ideas.
That said, my favorite is an arpeggiator. With the Arp in your DAW, place it on a new track that has some chord MIDI, set it to a 1/16th note rhythm, and play around with some pattern presets. That said, I also recommend tweaking the octave range the arp plays over (I usually don’t go for more than two octaves).
Like MIDI packs and referencing, MIDI FX offer you an idea generation tool. Pretty rarely do I find that I’m using a melody straight out of something like an arpeggiator, but I use these tools to help me create an idea that I can then tweak to be perfect.
6. Practice, Practice, Practice
Finally, as with many things in music production, there is simply no substitute for repetition. If you put in the hours to practice, I guarantee you that the melodies you write a year or two from now will be light years better than the ones you’re writing today.
Writing a melody is one of the most important times in the production process when you get to inject you into the song. I encourage you to continue to work on creating melodies as part of the process of “finding your sound” — after all, having a unique sound is as much about the composition and melodies as it is about the sounds themselves.
7. Study & Use Music Theory
Ok, I said this wasn’t a music theory article, but I do need to give a shoutout to actually learning music theory. I don’t think it’s 100% necessary, but having a great knowledge of music theory definitely won’t hurt your ability to write great melodies.
So, let’s start with a basic concept of categorizing notes within the key of your track: stable and unstable tones. Stable tones are the root note of your key, the fifth, and the third (in Cmaj, that is C, G, and E), and unstable tones are all the other notes in the key of your track (II, IV, VI, VII).
Stable tones offer a nice resolve for a melody, unstable tones create tension and interest. A balance of both can help produce a great melody — try using unstable tones to add color and moodiness to a basic melody you’ve already created.
Beyond that, let me quickly introduce another favorite music theory concept: runs and jumps. Runs play notes in the key of the track in order (C, D, E, etc, or E, D, C), and jumps simply don’t play in that order. Some of our favorite melodies here at Hyperbits HQ are simple repeated alternations between runs and jumps.
What other melody writing tips and tricks do you use? Any melody writing golden rules that you live by? After all, I’m always learning too.