3 Secret Strategies That Create Incredible Melodies

these-three-strategies

In this post, you’ll discover three secret strategies at work in songs by Billie Eilish, Bill Withers, and Beethoven. For each strategy, I demonstrate three practical ways to make your own melodies come alive. If you’ve ever struggled with how to write a convincing melody but haven’t found guidance that helps, it’s likely that at least one of these three new approaches will open things up for you.

[1] Melody has a vocabulary. Learn it!
[2] Use the Meter to Intensify the Energy and Meaning of Your Melody.
[3] Set up melodic plot twists.

Before we dive in, I’d like you to think about your strategy for learning these strategies. There is A LOT of information here—more than in my other blogs. If you know this up front, you’ll be less likely to feel overwhelmed. Nobody says that you have to master everything here in one sitting. Go at your own pace. Take some time to try out the practical applications. Come back often to see if anything new jumps out at you. Most of all, have fun! This is a rule-free blog.

Secret Strategy #1:
Melody has a Vocabulary. Learn It!

You’ve probably never heard that melody has a “vocabulary.” Why not? Because nobody talks about a melodic vocabulary, though everybody uses it – players, listeners, and composers alike. How do I know this?

As we listen to a melody, our brains automatically draw relationships, prioritize notes, and recognize patterns. Because music happens in time, we “follow” each melody much like we follow any story. Following a melody requires remembering what happened already and predicting what will happen next. All of the brain processes I just described operate in the background until we focus on them.

However, none of this would be possible if every melody were 100% brand new. That is to say that if every melody possessed a truly unique series of tones – a series that had no subsets in common with any other melodies – our brains would need to start from scratch each time we heard a new melody.

Which brings us to the vocabulary of melody. Every melody that you know draws from just 24 melodic patterns or “figures.”

“the 24 Melodic Figures,” written to project C major harmony
the 24 common melodic figures

You’ll notice that I circled two figures on the chart. These are the first two figures in Billie Eilish’s song, “Everything I Wanted.”

“Everything I Wanted,” by Billie Eilish


everything I wanted with melodic figures marked

I’d estimate that there are at least a hundred other melodies that use Eilish’s figures in the same order. Here are but two.

“Lean On Me,” by Bill Withers


Lean On Me with melodic figures marked

“Chorale Fantasy,” Op. 80 by Ludwig Von Beethoven

beethoven-chorale-fantasy-op-80

So three different composers have created three unique melodies from two identical figures. Please notice that the melodies not only differ in how they sound but in what they say.

  • Eilish sings about the pain of self-doubt. And as her song proceeds, we come to know the role her brother played in helping her overcome it.
  • “Lean on Me” gives all of us a chance to reach out to those who suffer. It helps us say, “I get it. It’s ok. I got you.”
  • And finally, Beethoven’s “Chorale Fantasy” celebrates the power of the arts to heal and inspire. For example, here are a few lines (translated) from the second verse:

When the magic of sound will reign
And the awe of language is spoken,
Something wonderful will engender,
night and tempest transform into light.

COMPOSERS USE THE MELODIC VOCABULARY TO AMPLIFY AND CLARIFY MEANING.

In any great song, the notes and rhythms play a vital role in conveying meaning. In fact, in some songs, the music communicates even more than the lyrics! Take the chorus of “I Will Always Love You,” for example. The lyrics appear below in their entirety. Read them out loud.

I will always love you.
I will always love you.
I will always love you.
I will always love you.

Congratulations! You’ve skillfully communicated the full meaning of the song. Or have you?

“I Will Always Love You,” by Dolly Parton, performed by Whitney Houston

One way to discover why a composer chose certain melodic figures and arranged them as she did is to “de-compose” her melody. To de-compose a melody, we take out any unusual behavior and replace those with more predictable behavior. Once we do that, we can compare how each version feels. This opens a way for us to get inside the music to see how the composer created the effect she was after.

What could be more practical than that?

Practical application #1: Decide whether your melodic figures should match or contrast.

In “Everything I Wanted,” the first gesture opens a dialogue. “I had a dream.” But then the second gesture feels suddenly shy, less confident – like Eilish fears that we won’t understand what she means.  

“Everything I Wanted,” comparing the first two melodic figures


Everything I Wanted comparing the first two melodic figures

The melody mirrors the intent of each short line of lyrics. The Run feels candid, straightforward. But the second gesture meanders, taking a more inward turn. And this gives a clue for what we might de-compose.What if the first two gestures matched more closely, like they do in many other songs? For example:  

a familiar tune where the first two gestures match

Direct repetition of the first figure in “Everything I Wanted” isn’t possible because the second bit of text has too many syllables. Still, we can engineer a close match. Let’s change the last note of the Return to make it a Run. From there, it makes sense to keep going because the long scale matches the gesture of the first four notes of the melody. And notice something else. Those same four notes (the Run from C# to G#) are nested inside in the de-composed version.

“Everything I Wanted,” de-composing the end of the first phrase to match the first


Everything I wanted de-composing the end of the first phrase

Once we hear the de-composed version, it becomes immediately apparent what Eilish’s version avoids: covering too much “territory” when she talks about what she wants. It’s like the guy who not only talks with his hands, he flings them far and wide, high and low—especially when he talks about himself. In contrast, Eilish’s version plays everything close to the vest. It conceals more than it reveals, hardly unusual for Eilish. Her writing is frequently spare, hinting at things that others might state more blatantly.

In contrast, “Lean On Me” is a song that comes right out and declares that life is full of trouble. And unlike “Everything I Wanted,” which opens with two contrasting figures (a Run and a Return), “Lean On Me” uses two Runs.

“Lean On Me,” by Bill Withers

Lean On Me with melodic figures marked

Yet Withers offers his matter-of-fact pronouncement in a warm, friendly, and gentle spirit. Everyone suffers, but things will get better if you just hang in there. And so, I need to be there for you in tough times. And I will.

Practical application #2: Decide whether or not to put space (time) between your melodic figures.

It’s natural to think of a melody as a continuous outflowing of musical tones. But that’s not necessarily true. “Everything I Wanted,” for example, puts quite a bit of space between the end of the first figure and the beginning of the second. Still, we connect the two and consider it one melody. But what would happen if we took the space away?

“Everthing I Wanted,” and I want it right away!


everything I wanted rhythm

And we can ask the same about “Lean On Me.”

“Lean On Me,” removing the space between the first two iterations


lean on me with square rhythm

While we’re at it, how would Beethoven’s “Chorale Fantasy” sound with space added between iterations?

“Chorale Fantasy,” adding space between each iteration


beethoven-chorale-fantasy-too-short

Here’s a summary observation for each song.

  • By singing “I got everything I wanted” on the heels of “I had a dream,” Billie Eilish’s opening is nowhere nearly as dark and unsettling as her original version. The uninterrupted version almost feels gleeful.
  • If Withers had written “Lean On Me” more compactly, his words would feel far less empathetic.
  • Beethoven’s setting of the text of the Chorale Symphony effusive expression of consummate joy. With the interruptions, it feels more like a silly game.

For me, these observations are particularly germane. My first draft of a melody typically comes out in one long string. Initially, I’m intrigued with my new creation, but the next day, not so much. I can’t tell you how many times I fixed a too-crammed melody by adding space.

The moral of the story? Putting some space between melodic figures allows the listener time to absorb the words to reflect on them. But that’s not always the right strategy. Depending on what the composer needs to say, placing the melodic figures close together might be just what the song calls for.

Practical application #3: Start one of two figures on a nonchord tone to make your melody more electrifying.

Each note in a melodic figure has a relationship to the harmony. In fact, in many songs, you can sense the harmony even when hearing the melody all by itself. I explain how this works in Chapter One of Figuring Out Melody. For now, we can focus on one of the most basic rules tying melody to harmony. The first note of a melodic figure is typically a chord tone.

Yet in Beethoven’s Chorale Fantasy, the first two figures begin with non-chord tones. This technique goes by different names depending on the musical style. In pop and jazz music, we call it a “sus,” which is short for “suspension.” In classical music, we call it an “appoggiatura.” In an appoggiatura, we play the wrong note first, then resolve to the right note. It’s as if we’ve changed the no-personality “right note” into a more intriguing “wrong note.”

“Chorale Fantasy,” with the appoggiaturas removed


Chorale Fantasy with the appoggiaturas removed

 Until you recognize what an appoggiatura (or “sus”) does, you won’t appreciate its potential to invigorate your melodies in oh-so-many ways. As for myself, I’ve been studying this potent little device for most of my musical life, and I still don’t feel like I can explain all of its possible effects. All I can say is that it reminds me of the term, “Put some English on it,” that some (older) coaches say to get a pitcher or tennis player to add some hocus pocus to their serve. In baseball, a pitcher might throw a knuckleball or a curve. In tennis, a player might add topspin. And there are applications in pool, soccer, and golf. And, it turns out, melody.

Beethoven puts some English on his melody by adding appoggiaturas, which keep a simple tune from sounding simplistic. Once we remove them through de-composition, we recognize something important about the melodic vocabulary. You don’t need fancy figures to produce compelling music. Beethoven has used utterly familiar figures in a highly expressive way.

Secret Strategy #2:
Use the Meter to Intensify the Energy and Meaning of Your Melody.

There are dozens of definitions of melody. Only a few mention the role of patterns (which we can understand as melodic figures). Even fewer mention rhythm as central. But I’ve not seen a single one that mentions the role that meter plays in melody.

Before we get into examples from the three pieces under consideration in this blog, let me show you two famous melodies that have the same notes but different rhythms. Even more importantly, each series places the notes differently within the meter. When we explore metric placements, we quickly find that notes feel, behave, and mean differently depending on how they align with the meter.

Metric alignment is hard to explain but easy to feel. Here’s the series of notes that both songs use.

a series of notes used in two different melodies


a series of notes used in two different melodies“Sunrise, Sunset,” by Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick “Minuet from Symphony #40,” by Mozart


sunrise, sunset and symphony #40

The most pronounced differences occur between the first three notes of each piece. “Sunrise, Sunset” uses the most conventional metric placement, which we call “the waltz:” a strong downbeat followed by two lighter upbeats. Mozart’s “Minuet” reverses what was up and down from “Sunrise, Sunset.” But that’s not the most significant change. Feel how much propulsion he amasses by syncopating the Bb!

These are the sorts of kinetic effects we’ll listen for as we de-compose Eilish, Withers, and Beethoven.

Practical application #4: Decide where to begin your figures: off the beat, or on the beat?

“Everything I Wanted” begins off the beat, making the first three notes a pickup to the word “dream.” What happens when we move the word “I” onto the strong beat?

“Everything I Wanted,” starting on the beat


Everything I Wanted starting on the beat

Not only does the de-composed version feel “square,” its meaning flips. Putting the word “I” on a strong beat (beat 3) emphasizes the speaker. “This is my dream. Listen up because it happened to me.” In contrast, Eilish’s version puts the focus on her dream – something that happened to her, something she can’t control. Notice that the word I is on an upbeat. Something else just dawned on me about the word “I.” Has Eilish ever sung the word “I” on a downbeat?

This final version shows the way that most songwriters would set these words. Put the word “I” on a strong beat to keep the spotlight on myself, then syncopate “dream” to give it sort of bouncy, hip highlight.

“Everything I Wanted,” starting on the beat and syncopating the end


everything I wanted starting on the beat and syncopating the end

This is such an ordinary, everyday rhythm that it cases like this, where it doesn’t fit the lyrics, it can feel “slangy.” One danger with using the same sorts of emphasis and hyperbole as everyone else is that it can erase the poignancy of a message. There’s a time to match our tone and delivery to everyone else, and a time not to.

Practical application #5: Make syncopation count.

Moving on to “Lean On Me,” we find it opens with the exact rhythm I just denounced. So why does it work so well here?

“Lean On Me,” with the original rhythm


lean on me with the original rhythm

Suffering people often say that they want to know such and such happened. But what they truly want is connection. If you’ve ever tried offering a philosophical explanation of pain to someone presently in pain, you already know that a person’s ability to hang on to a logical argument diminishes proportionately to his degree of suffering.

In “Everything I Wanted,” Eilish tells us about her own pain. Her individualized rhythms help us to understand her points more clearly. But in “Lean On Me,” Withers identifies with our pain. The familiar undulation of this rhythm  helps us believe that he understands us and feel he’s right there with us.

In the first section of this blog, I de-composed the rhythm of “Lean On Me” to make it more speechlike. This time, I’ll also change the rhythm, but more importantly, those changes rework the metric placement. Make sure to sense how this music feels once I remove the syncopation. Also ask yourself how the message changes?

“Lean On Me,” trying out three overly-obvious rhythms


Lean On Me with three overly-obvious rhythms

If versions #1 and 2 are terrible, and they are, the metric placement in version #3 is even more unsuitable for these lyrics. But surprise, surprise! Beethoven uses the same metric placement in his “Chorale Fantasy.”

Practical application #6: An appoggiatura offers two strategic advantages.

If you’ve only thought of an appoggiatura (or sus) as a harmonic device – and most people do – you are ignoring its potential as a rhythmic power tool. As I said earlier, an appoggiatura starts with a “wrong” note – something that doesn’t belong to the harmony – then resolves it to the “right” note. It’s a temporary harmonic displacement. And it’s also a temporary metric displacement. Remember that in typical cases, we hear a chord tone on each strong beat.

When played at a moderately fast tempo, appoggiaturas can add drive to the rhythm that makes it fly.

“Chorale Fantasy,” by with the appoggiaturas marked


beethoven’s chorale fantasy with the appoggiaturas marked

When played at a slow tempo, appoggiaturas can add a sense of longing. The psychological experience of longing makes us ache for relief. Physically, longing produces feelings of weakness. We may find ourselves leaning on something or someone for support. By the way, did you know that the word appoggiatura comes from the Italian “to lean?” Verily, in “Lean On Me,” the word “sorrow” owes a great deal of its pathos to its delayed, leaning resolution.

lean-on-me-first-cadence

core

Secret Strategy #3:
Set Up Melodic Plot Twists.

Every movie has a plot. Every plot requires three stages:

  1. Set up a typical situation – something familiar, something we think we know.
  2. Introduce an element of conflict.
  3. Resolve the conflict.

When we say that “a movie has a great plot twist,” we mean that something surprising happens right at the moment that the main conflict in the film should resolve. But if you think about it, there are hundreds of little plot twists along the way. In just about every scene of a good film, a character will say something unexpected. Or someone makes plans, but they run into unforeseen snags. And etc. Without these little plot twists, we’d quickly lose interest.

Every melody also has a “plot.” And melodic plots revolve around the same three stages that dramatic plots do.

The instant somebody starts singing, or a violin begins scratching out a tune, our brains immediately start comparing what we presently hear with other melodies we’ve heard before. At every point along the way, we make predictions. As I said in section one, we do this unconsciously, just like we do while watching a movie.  

Try this sometime. Do an internet search for plot lines. Some sites will tell you that all stories follow one of five basic plot lines. Others list well over a hundred. One site, “29 Plot Templates,” caught my attention because it captures a great way to think about melodic plot lines. Once you know a few, you’ll have more expressive power over listeners’ expectations.

All three of the songs under consideration in this blog use the most common melodic template of all time: the “Period.” A Period consists of two phrases, usually 4 bars long. The two phrases match, save for the way they end. Even a simple melody-less diagram makes this clear because it accounts for harmony, which is a key component of the Period template.

diagram of a musical Period

The antecedent phrase of a Period ends in a way that feels incomplete, harmonically unsettled. (90% of the time, the chord there is the dominant.) This unsettled chord introduces the “conflict” in the musical plot. Then the second time through the same melody (the consequent phrase), the composer changes the way that the music ends so that it feels more settled and resolves the conflict.

“Oh, Susanna!” by Stephen Foster


oh-susanna

 A great thing about templates is that each one has at least one predictable moment, opening the opportunity for a plot twist to occur. In the Period, that spot is just before the end of the consequent phrase. Now, in a Period, it would sound surprising (or stupid) if a composer DIDN’T do something different at the end of the second phrase!

“Oh, Susanna!” with the last two notes reversed


oh susanna with the last two notes reversed

Practical application #7: The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

A good composer will find just the right plot twist to make the end of the second phrase grab our hearts. And Withers is a good composer. Below, I’ve de-composed the ending to its most straightforward version. But that’s not what Withers wrote. His dramatic drop from E to B gets me every time.

“Lean On Me,” with the ending de-composed


Lean On Me with the ending de-composed

And notice something that Withers does to make this moment stand out even more. He sets up a rhythmic pattern in the first half of this 4-bar phrase. Both bars end with a syncopated tie into the next bar (highlighted with yellow arrows). But – surprise – there’s no syncopation at the end of bar 3! The glaring absence of a note on the + of 4 intensifies this upbeat, increasing its urgency to land. And then a double whammy: the landing note (B) is an appoggiatura! Or to put it differently, the upbeat creates a great deal of commotion, then lands on a note which is itself in turmoil.

“Lean On Me,” exploring the source of power at the cadence


exploring the source of power at the cadence

Practical application #8: Downplay expectation one minute so you can intensify it a moment later.

On to Beethoven. As the template for a Period recommends, the antecedent phrase ends “up in the air.” And in good order, the consequent phrase brings things to a satisfying close.  

“Chorale Fantasy.” Feel the harmonic tension in the first phrase (on V)


chorale-fantasy-period

Now you might wonder why Beethoven doesn’t do anything fancier at the end of bar 8? After all, many experts consider Beethoven as the all-time Master of Musical Plot Twists. But this time, he has something better up his sleeve. Right when we least expect it, he stops the show for no apparent reason. Then he starts up again as if nothing had happened.  

“Chorale Fantasy,” inquiring about the pause in the second phrase


chorale-fantasy-whole-theme analyzed

Although I said “no apparent reason,” when I de-compose this theme by removing the pause, it makes the entire thing sound, well, silly in the way that many children’s songs feel silly. The second consequent (bar 16), especially, suddenly feels unsatisfying. 

Practical application #9: Make an ending feel like a new beginning.

Eilish bases the beginning of her song as a Period, though it’s devoid of harmonic tension at the end of the antecedent phrase (on “wanted”). But two important conventions remain. First, a typical Period repeats most of the antecedent phrase in the consequent. And second, the composer alters end of the consequent phrase to bring it to a more satisfying conclusion than the antecedent. But that is NOT what happens here. Far from it! And therein lies the genius.

First, let’s listen. Compare the second part of the antecedent phrase with the second part of the consequent).

“Everything I Wanted,” comparing the second part of each phrase


Everything I Wanted comparing the second part of each phrase

How “conclusive” did you find the ending of the consequent phrase? Does it feel like a convincing wrap-up? A somewhat undermined conclusion? Or not a completion at all?

The consequent phrase repeats the antecedent phrase directly up through the word “honest.” A lesser composer would have stopped there. And that would sound like this.

“Everything I Wanted,” with the consequent phrase de-composed


everything I wanted with the consequent phrase de-composed

Before reading further, try to forget that you know this song so that you can give this shorter ending a fair listen. There’s nothing “wrong” with it. It’s just not nearly as good as what Eilish does.

But Eilish extends the ending by repeating the melody. I’ve labeled this below.

“Everything I Wanted,” with the consequent’s extension labeled


Everything I Wanted with the consequent’s extension labeled

At least it seems like she is extending the ending at the very moment that the extension begins (on the words “it might have been”). But she makes that ending morph into a new beginning. The effect is much like going through a wormhole. In case you’re unaccustomed to that concept, it’s explained here.

“Wormhole Scene,” from the film “Event Horizon”

To make her new beginning exceptionally vivid, Eilish uses the same Run that began the song, also starting on its first note, C#.

“Everything I Wanted,” highlighting the pitch connections that open the “wormhole”


Everything I Wanted highlighting the pitch connections that open the “wormhole”

If this technical explanation feels like a lot to wrap your head around, I get it. But don’t worry—this won’t be on the test. Just be sure to listen to the passage a few times, and enjoy your ride through this musical wormhole!

POINTS FOR REVIEW

[1] Melody has a vocabulary. Learn it! The first section introduced the idea of a melodic vocabulary – a collection of 24 figure patterns that we find in all melodies.

  • Human beings have a subconscious understanding of the melodic vocabulary. Without it, listeners couldn’t make sense of music. We’d have no reference point when hearing a new piece of music. Music would seem patternless and random.
  • Composers and performers typically use the melodic vocabulary intuitively. However, through study, it’s possible to use melodic figures consciously AND intuitively.
  • We explored three pieces that use the same two melodic figures in the same order, yet each sounds quite different from the others.
  • Each composer had strategies for using melodic figures to reinforce what he or she needed to say.
  • We can discover how they created knowable effects and why by de-composing a passage.
  • Melodic figures have a harmonic dimension.

[2] Use the meter to intensify the energy and enrich the meaning of your melody. In the second section, we found that melodic ideas feel differently depending on how they line up with the meter.

  • Where a rhythmic pattern starts and lands will determine whether it drags or gains momentum.
  • The metric placement of lyrics shapes their intensity and implication.
  • An appoggiatura is not only a harmonic device, but it’s also a rhythmic device.

[3] Set up melodic plot twists. Here we found that melodies follow a plotline. A plot introduces conflict, then resolves it.

  • We expect specific things to happen at certain points in a melodic “plot.” By learning the moments of highest expectation, composers can add a dramatic element of surprise.
  • The “Period” is one example of a musical plot or template. The moment of conflict occurs at the end of the first phrase (the antecedent). The end of the second phrase (the consequent) resolves the conflict.
  • An exaggerated upbeat at the end of a phrase is a good melodic strategy. It sets up an opportunity for a spectacularly twisty plot twist.
  • Billie Eilish is a darned good melodist.

Want to go further? You CAN!

Each chapter in this 300-page eBook breaks down everything that expert music makers do intuitively as they create a melody. Along the way, you’ll find plenty of step-by-step instructions to help you create the same effects in your own music.

figuring out melody cover

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David Fuentes

David Fuentes

Professor Fuentes is a composer, author, teacher, and clinician. He brings over 30 years of teaching experience from institutions that include Berklee College of Music, the University of Iowa, Brandeis University, and Calvin University.

Dr. Fuentes’ music has been performed all across the world. It includes music for the classical concert stage, theater and musical theater, television, art installations, popular music genres, and the church.

A published author, his writing on composition, vocation and the arts, and the place of music in human flourishing has been influential in the development of music curriculum in an ever-changing world.

You can find samples of his music and writing on his personal website: davidfuentesmusic.com, which also provides a longer bio.

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