So … you've checked all the boxes of what your lead melody SHOULD do. But it still doesn't work. Why not?
After all, there's TONS of great lead melody tips online — like using:
- conjunct/disjunct motion
- call/response phrasings
But there's ONE trick that rarely sees the light of day.
And (in my opinion) it's the most practical, most useful, and arguably the most important trick for writing lead melodies…
So what's the unspoken “trick” to lead melodies…?
>> INTERACTION <<
Let me explain.
We don't experience melodies in ISOLATION. We experience them in CONTEXT — with all the other arrangement elements.
And in great arrangements, all the sounds INTERACT in a mindful, deliberate, and intentional way.
So, when we write lead melodies, we need to take context and interaction into account — from the start!
Common sense, right?
Let's go back to the very first sentence of this post:
“You've checked all the boxes of what your lead melody SHOULD do. But it still doesn't work. Why not?”
- Because you're not taking context into account from the start.
- Because you're not mindful, deliberate, or intentional about the interactions you make between the lead melody and the other (primary) sounds in your arrangement.
- Because you've been working backward. Instead of making sure your melody works from the beginning, you're trying to force it to work in the end.
Let's change that…
How do we get our lead melodies to “play well” with others?
Here is a three step process:
Assuming you already have a lead sound…
Assuming you're writing to a basic groove…
Solo The Primary Sounds.
Let's say there's two hooks in my track: (1) a vocal acapella and (2) the lead melody that I'm going to write.
Here, I would solo the kick, bass, and vocal. And I would start writing the lead melody with only these three elements playing.
Why? Because everything else is secondary to the interaction of the primary sounds.
(Next step? My favorite thing to do is jam — because jamming naturally brings out interactions. But we're assuming that you've tried this step. So what else can we do?)
Get The Rhythms To Interact.
Whether you're building a lead melody from scratch — or if you're trying to “fix” an existing melody — the best place to start is rhythm.
KEEP IT SUPER SIMPLE (K.I.S.S.)
Pay attention to how the rhythms of the primary sounds interact (kick, bass, vocal, whatever).
Obviously, the kick and bass are interacting in a way that creates a compelling groove.
But now you're adding a NEW sound. You're increasing the “melodic” complexity of the track, so you want to be careful…
You don't want the interactions of the primary sounds to descend into chaos or noise.
(As the saying goes … if you confuse, you lose.)
But the reverse of this — SIMPLIFYING — is highly recommended!
If you're working with an existing lead melody, lock all the notes to a single pitch and listen to the rhythm. How can you simplify it?
If you're working from scratch, simplicity is still key, but here are some practical melody writing techniques for achieving legit interaction:
(These tips also work if you're trying to fix existing lead melodies…)
SIMILAR & CONTRARY RHYTHMS
Start by coming up with a “similar” rhythm or “contrary” rhythm. See which one you like best. Then adjust from there.
Here's what I mean:
Similar Rhythm: Have your lead melody play the same, or similar, rhythm as the kick/bass/vocal rhythm.
Obviously, this could get busy, so try playing a lead rhythm that accents special parts of the kick/bass/vocal rhythm.
Contrary Rhythm: Have your lead melody play a counter rhythm. Here, the lead rhythm fills the gaps in the kick/bass/vocal rhythm.
Or Both: The best lead rhythm will likely be a combination of both similar and contrary rhythms. Why? Because you still want the lead melody to be independently interesting.
So there's a balance you need to strike between:
- being interesting on its own and
- interacting with the other sounds.
Like I said earlier, most people focus on #1 (above) and spend hours trying to make the lead melody interesting on its own.
This post is recommending that you focus on #2 (above): Write your lead melody from the perspectives of context and interaction. First. That's fundamental.
Get The Pitches To Interact.
At this point, you have a lead rhythm that is both interactive and independently interesting. That's a HUGE win!
Now's the time to change those pitches! And we'll use the same concepts we used with rhythm:
SIMILAR & CONTRARY MOTION
Similar Motion: Have the pitch movement of the lead melody follow the pitch movement of the bass or vocal.
So if the vocal goes up in pitch, the lead melody also goes up.
Contrary Motion: Have the pitch movement of the lead melody go in the opposite direction as the bass or vocal.
So if the vocal goes down in pitch, the lead melody goes up (not down).
There's actually one other kind of pitch motion:
Oblique Motion: This is where one sound moves (up or down) in pitch while another sounds stays on the same pitch.
So if the vocal goes up in pitch, the lead melody stays on the same note.
But I don't want to get too technical. I just want to highlight the fact that all these motions have interaction built in.
So when you write your lead melody, start at the extremes of these interactions.
100% SIMILAR: Try matching the lead melody with another primary sound — like the bass or vocal or some combination of both.
100% CONTRARY: Or try having your lead melody move counter to some primary sounds in the arrangement.
One of these extremes (similar vs. contrary) will stand out to you. (Or at the very least, it will spark a new idea.) So start there and then adjust.
In the end, your melody (like your rhythm) will likely be a combination of similar, contrary, and oblique motion.
But the key is that your melodic choices will be guided by context and interaction. So you know that it will work.
MORE MELODY TIPS
Remember simplicity? Well, having a simple direction or function in your melody helps the memorability by 10x. So here are some basic (yet timeless) melodic shapes to try:
Rhythmic Melodies: These are monotone melodies (literally) that just have an interesting rhythm.
Accent Melodies: These are essentially rhythmic melodies. But they'll have some melodic leap to either accent the rhythm or highlight a special moment in another sound.
Up Melodies: These are directional melodies with a generally upward melodic contour. They go up. These melodies typically move up and away from the tonic note (the first note in the scale) — moving from stability to instability.
Down Melodies: These are directional melodies with a generally downward melodic contour. They go down. These melodies typically start away from the tonic and descend in pitch toward the tonic — moving from instability to stability.
Call-Response Melodies: These are melodies have two distinct (yet interacting) parts: an A section that “calls” and a B section that “responds.” Typically the call section goes up (building tension) and the response section goes down (releasing tension). These melodies are also called “question/answer” or “antecedent/consequent” melodies.
Two Final Points
#1 – Don't steal the spotlight. If your bass or vocal has an exciting moment, don't steal the spotlight with your lead melody. That is the antithesis of interaction. Instead, either get the lead melody out of the way, or highlight the moment in a complimentary way.
#2 – I admit: this post reveals a VERY mechanical approach to getting a lead melody that (finally) works. Like I said before, JAMMING is my preferred way of writing a lead melody. But not every jam yields gold. In those cases, try today's process — it emphasizes the two unsung heroes of lead melodies: interaction and rhythm.
The FINAL Point
How do you make a good melody? You start with interaction.
Leave a comment below and let me know which concept, insight or tip stands out to you the most. By commenting, you'll write about it and reinforce the concept! Win-win!