I want to start this post off by mentioning that I have seen the 1/16/2017 post on a similar topic; That post related more to the lyrical/prosodic elements of the melody, and I am more interested in the composing of melodies.

I typically approach my songs (think pop music) with the vocal line interacting in some way with the other instruments. For that reason, certain factors, such as chord voicing or contrapuntal motion can heavily influence the outline of a melody.

This time around, however, it just so happens that the instrumentals are completed, and I am ambivalent about the melodies that are basically just filler at this point. So, I am looking to revise the melodies, leaving the completed tracks as they are--this is sort of the notion of top-lining, which is apparently a huge part of modern-day songwriting in pop music.

from Berklee.edu:

Toplining is an idiosyncratic process, at times requiring a methodical, compositional approach and at others an experimental, improvisational one. When working on a track, top-line songwriters frequently start by coming up with several core vocal melodies—"hooks"—and words or phrases that seem to match the tone of the track (or the producer's requested topic). Over time and through much trial and error, these ideas are refined into developed sections like verse and chorus.

I am most curious about the compositional approach (as opposed to the experimental/trial and error/improvisational approach) regarding this concept. What factors play a role in this process? What do you suspect are the melody-writers main reference points when sitting down with a completed instrumental? Perhaps one would consider the location of the bass? Or the ensuring the complete chord is well balanced? Using tendency tones when appropriate (accented vs. unaccented passing tones)? etc . . .

I have never considered myself simply a melody writer because of my harmony/chord-based/holistic approach to songwriting, but I am trying to put myself in the shoes of someone who successfully writes unforgettable melodies and JUST THAT. Where to begin??

  • Lesson one: Paul McCartney - Silly Love Songs. One simple chord structure [plus a bridge] 6 distinct melodies, most of which other composers would have been happy to run with. Song ends on the first line of the bridge. Genius.
    – Tetsujin
    May 14, 2020 at 5:23
  • Maybe you should try to find interviews of succesful topliners, perhaps they reveal something about their thought process? May 14, 2020 at 9:22
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    @pro please suggest a book so that I can read it
    – 286642
    May 14, 2020 at 17:55
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    In what way are chord sequences explained? More like, described. Do the explanations or descriptions enable you to create different but equally catchy chord sequences? What do the explanations allow you to do? And aren't melodies "explained" all the time in the same way? Chord-tone, non-chord-tone, leading tone, tension, resolution, weak beat, strong beat, long, short, ascending, descending, repeating, non-repeating, expected, surprising. Or ... what if success doesn't come from the properties of the actual melodies, but who you know and work with, and what and how many projects you get into? May 14, 2020 at 19:52
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    Functional harmony gives us a roadmap for moving to and from the tonic, no? It explains why the IV goes to the V and then to the I or vi. The rules of melody tell us how to resolve tendency tones, how to use leaps and rhythm to create interest, and that repetition is an important aspect of a melody. But I don't see a parallel concept in melody as, say, the circle of fifths, which is essentially a breeding ground for strong chord progressions
    – 286642
    May 14, 2020 at 20:35

1 Answer 1


What factors play a role in this process?

An infinite number of factors play a role in this process if we are simply talking about combinations of notes to dictate melody, harmony and rhythm - even with finite structures like diatonic and chromatic scales.

But, there are certain guidelines to follow in order to help one compose "catchy" melodies. A look at how classical musicians compose melodies is a good place to begin when answering this question - even (or especially) as applied to pop music.

1.) Start with a melody

This is a debated topic, to be sure. But, it is also a time tested approach, going back through the centuries, for creating melodic ear-worms. I also understand that you it is somewhat of a contrary point to your initial question... But, even the snippet that you reference from the Berklee site seems to agree:

top-line songwriters frequently start by coming up with several core vocal melodies

That said, it is difficult for any composer to write only unforgettable melodies and just that, as you put it. It will likely be especially difficult to do so with little or no wiggle room within the chord structures that you have already created.

So, the first piece of advice here would be to try and revamp your melodies into something more catchy or at least something going beyond "just filler" that you yourself are proud of and like to listen to. Then, allow yourself to potentially revamp parts of your rhythm and harmony to fit your new catchier melody (yes, that can be difficult sometimes - "Don't you touch my babies!" haha)

2.) Keep it simple

Some of the most memorable melodies are also some of the simplest. I will refer to Beethoven's 5th Symphony (I know, but it is really a great example for this topic.)

There is nothing more to say regarding the simplicity of the first melodic phrase - a triplet and a half note covering two tones. And, it is instantly recognizable ("Dun, dun, dun, Daaaaaah!")

3.) The 1, 2, 3 approach

1 - introduce a melody. 2 - repeat the first phrase. 3 - introduce variation to the melodic phrase.

This is used all over in classical music of course but, it is also used to this day in modern pop. Beethoven's 5th is also a good example for this and for the other guidelines, as well...

4.) Peaks & Valleys

This concept applies to so many aspects of music - the notes written on the staff, build up and release of tension, when the sounds are heard and the silence in between.

Some people seem to be born with the finesse to apply this concept in their music naturally and intelligently, some people spend their whole lives hoping to do so and are never effectively able to.

5.) Writing for the specific instrument

This is not generally due to issues of range as much as it is due to issues of ability and timbre. One can fairly easily transpose a melody to accommodate a specific range... but if a piece for piano contains a melody where consecutive notes jump two octaves, it would be impossible for a singer to perform without transcription.

Finally, piano and vocals obviously sound way different - so the age-old question applies, "what are you wanting to do?" What sort of mood are you hoping to achieve, etc...

This step is also not as immensely important to a catchy melody as the others - it is simply a good practice. This is because most, if not all, of the most catchy and unforgettable melodies can usually be fairly easily transcribed for other instruments (again, "keep it simple.")

In Pop

There are many and great examples of these principal's being applied in pop music. When talking about Nirvana's Nevermind in an interview on VH1 Classic Albums, Dave Grohl said, "We wanted them to be almost like children’s songs; we would tell people they were intended to be as simple as possible.”

If you listen to some of the songs from that album, such as In Bloom, you can see how simply the vocal melodies are composed and (almost) follow the '1, 2, 3 approach' in both verse and chorus.

There are many many other good examples out there - this is the first one that came to mind, thinking on the quote from Grohl.

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