How to... write a melody

Melodies are centrally important to all commercial composing, be it songs, title music or film scores. Here's what you need to know about writing one.

Maya Radcliffe
  • By Maya Radcliffe
  • 15 Oct 2020
  • min read

Songwriter and composer Roddy Matthews has just released a new book titled: Secrets You Should Know About Writing Great Songs. We asked him to give us some valuable tips and insights on melody.

Roddy has played for a selection of artists from Charles Aznavour and Mungo Jerry to Tom Jones and Roland Rat. He has written styles of music that range from Hindi language pop songs to The Biscuit Rap from Two Pints of Lager, via country hoedowns, impressions of Bob Dylan and metal blitz-outs.

He has appeared on numerous hit records, including George Michael’s US No. 1 Monkey (1988) and Basement Jaxx’s 'Where’s Your Head At?' (2002). 

There are no rules

Good melodies don’t obey rules, they follow principles – of attraction and of independence. A melody is a series of notes that attracts and retains our attention, so it must have a high degree of coherence that gives it an independent life. If your melody sounds like part of its own accompaniment, keep going.

Strong melodies rhyme

Classical and pop melodies both use distinct metric repeat structures. These ‘motifs’ are the staple ingredient of all memorable melodies. They rhyme, meaning they have a correspondence in sound that listeners can unconsciously detect. Build your melody in short or long sections, but make sure that you inject a clear sense of rhyme.

Melodies imply chords, chords don’t imply melodies

Don’t write chords and expect that a tune will grow out of them. Good melodies have internal correspondences that give them grip and character regardless of harmonic content. Remember, jazz musicians spend a lot of their time rewriting chords under given melodies.

In songs that rely on repeated chord sequences, vary your melodic approach

If your chords are not providing dynamics and contrasts, your melody has to. Kurt Cobain did this in Smells Like Teen Spirit and the modern master is Max Martin. Can’t Feel My Face uses the same chords all through but has three vocal sections, each in a different vocal range, using different metric patterns, starting on a different step of the scale and on a different beat of the bar.

Writing a melody to a lyric is harder than writing a stand-alone melody

If melody is the most important thing to you, write the tune first. Abba and The Bee Gees did this, as does Max Martin. Remember, there are plenty of successful songs with a great tune and weak lyrics, but not many with great lyrics and a weak tune (OK, Lou Reed is different).

Study great tunes – they are tutorials in plain sight

Mozart, Tchaikovsky, JP Sousa, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, Burt Bacharach, John Williams all have great lessons to teach – balanced phrase construction, internal reflection of rhythmic patterns, and distinctive intervals jumps. Waterloo Sunset and bury a friend both contain these elements. What we can learn is that repeating rhythms and varying pitch creates melodies that are easy to remember and, very importantly for a pop song, easy to join in with.

Not all top lines are melodies

Solos and ad-libs excite us with their narrative qualities. But the best melodies recycle patterns of rhythm and pitch and don’t sound like improvisations. So, impose clear shape on what you write, even if most of it comes to you in a rush.

Use one note melodies

Not all the way through a song; that would be silly. But when used in single sections, one-note melodies create tension and enhance contrasts. Choruses like Out Of The Woods (Taylor Swift) or Shout Out To My Ex (Little Mix) use repeated notes very effectively. Tubthumping (Chumbawumba) has 29 identical notes in a row. You probably won’t beat that, but be aware of the intensity that single notes can bring.

Nursery rhymes have lessons for us

Nursery rhymes are a lexicon of balanced shapes, using repetition and variation in ideal forms. Nearly all have four lines, like most pop verses. Most either repeat the first melodic phrase with different words, or use the same rhythmic patterns with different notes and/or different words. This creates lean structures with maximum impact and minimum embellishment. Perfect to get your song going. One of the best tricks in pop is to write nursery rhyme melodies over cool or heavy music.

Five Take Aways

Listen constantly, write often, strive for structure, use and reuse distinctive intervals and rhythms, and don’t be afraid to throw stuff away.


Grab a copy of Roddy's book Secrets You Should Know About Writing Great Songs for more tips and tricks.