Advanced Melody Guide: Using Chord Tones, Motifs and More

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The success of your music depends on your ability to write strong, unique, and memorable melodies.

The ability to write great melodies is a muscle: you must actively train it, continually growing your knowledge and skillset.

But maybe you’ve written a few, watched a few tutorials, and your melodies still sound lame and cheesy.

This guide will teach you the key elements of a great melody and goes far beyond just the basics.

You’ll learn:

  • How to turn boring melody lines into memorable, catchy hooks that grab the attention of the listener
  • The concepts of space, repetition, chord tones, motifs and much more
  • A few popular melodies, dissecting what makes them work
  • When and how to fix a melody that just plain sucks
  • How to take what you’ve learned and apply it to your own music

Let’s dive right in.

Want a melody cheat sheet and some popular MIDI melodies from artists like Calvin Harris? Grab our MIDI pack below for free!

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Melody & Chords

First, I want to talk discuss the most important part of a great melody: it’s relationship to the chords.

A melody must relate to its chords in a purposeful way.

Without this, the melody will be weak and the song will fall short.

Think of it this way: I can take your favorite melody of all time and put a chord progression under it that makes your ears bleed.

So how exactly do melodies and chords relate?

When writing a melody over a chord progression, it’s essential to understand the relationship between chord tones and non-chord tones.

Chord Tones vs. Non-Chord Tones

A chord tone is a note that is in the chord, and a non-chord tone is a note that is not in the chord but still in the scale.

Chord tones will sound comfortable and satisfying, while non-chord tones will add tension and excitement.

Another way to think about this is chord tones are stable while non-chord tones are unstable.

To write a good melody, you must have a balance of both: non-chord tones that add tension, and chord-tones that resolve that tension.

Disclaimer: Even if your song doesn’t have chords, chords are still being implied by the bassline (or another melodic element in your track). 

An Example

We’re in the key of C Major, which contains all white notes, namely C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

We’ll start with a C Major chord (C-E-G).

In this case, C, E, and G are all chord tones. Conversely, D, F, A, and B, are non-chord tones.

Thus, C, E, and G will sound comfortable over the C major chord, while D, F, A, and B will add a bit of tension.

How To Use Chord Tones

It is important to recognize the overall relationship between chords and melodies. 

In general, notes that play on strong beats will have more emphasis, and notes that play on weak beats will have less emphasis.

Further, non-chord tones want to be resolved quickly, especially if they’re played on a strong beat.

For those of you unfamiliar with strong/weak beats, in a 4/4 time signature divided into quarter notes, the first beat is a strong beat, the second and fourth are weak, and the third beat is a medium beat.

To summarize: Notes played on strong beats will have more emphasis, while notes played on weak beats will have less emphasis. Both add to the overall shape and power of a melody. Non-chord tones want to be resolved to chord tones, especially when they’re played on a strong beat.

Let’s look an example of this.

Below is a transcription of the chords and melody of the chorus in Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child”. For clarity purposes, I’ve highlighted the melody.

Let’s look at the which melody notes are chord tones. Below, I’ve highlighted every chord tone in the melody.

As you can see, the melody is almost entirely comprised of chord tones.

Every time a new chord hits, a chord tone is played with it.

Remember, chord tones are stable: they help reinforce the chords.

Only one non-chord tone is played. It is played on an off beat and doesn’t add much tension to the progression. It adds a bit of early tension, which is immediately resolved by the next note.

Relatively speaking, this particular melody is very stable.

Most melodies will have more non-chord tones then this particular example.

Like a good movie, your melody has to have tension: it can’t be all smiles, there must be some degree of conflict and resolution. You need to create tension, and ultimately resolve that tension.

Let’s look at another example.

Here is a transcription of the chords and melody during the intro of ODESZA’s Say My Name.

Just as above, let’s see how many of the melody notes are chord tones. I’ve highlighted the chord tones below.

This melody strikes a good balance between chord tones and non-chord tones.

Notice that most of the non-chord tones are present during off beats, which adds less tension then during strong beats.

What about the last bar?

Most of the melody notes in the last bar are non-chord tones. Although this creates a good amount of tension, this tension is immediately resolved once the progression loops around.

Keeping these examples in mind, focus on the relationship between your melodies and chords.

Utilize chord tones and non-chord tones to create dynamic and cohesive arrangements.

Motif vs. Melody

Before we dive deeper into melody writing, let’s first discuss the concept of motifs.

A motif is a short musical idea. It’s composed of a few or several notes that relate to each other in a meaningful way.

A collection of motifs played together creates a full music idea, or in other words, a full melodic phrase.

A melody is composed of several motifs, repeated and tweaked to create a complete musical idea.

The Core Elements of a Great Melody

What follows is a framework you can use to dissect a melody.

The core elements of great melody are:

  • Motion
  • Space
  • Rhythm
  • Repetition

Motion

There a two types of melodic motion: stepwise motion and leapwise motion.

Stepwise motion is when a note moves to an adjacent note in the scale.

Leapwise motion is when a note moves more than one note away in the scale.

For example, let’s look at a melody in the key of C Major. The example below is comprised entirely of stepwise motion, since it is always playing an adjacent note in the scale.

Conversely, let’s look at an example of leapwise motion. Below, the melody is composed entirely of leapwise motion, where it always jumps at least one note in the scale to reach the next note.

Most melodies will favor stepwise motion over leapwise motion.

Stepwise motion is easier to follow then leapwise. However, leapwise motion adds a necessary element of tension and development.

A great melody will have a careful balance of both.

Which type of motion should your melodies favor?

This will ultimately depend on the style and genre you produce. Pop music will use heaps of stepwise motion, while other genres will use a balance of both stepwise and leapwise motion.

I don’t like giving hard numbers, but a safe bet would be between 60-80% stepwise motion for a traditional pop-melody. There are plenty of examples that go against this, but I feel it’s a good starting point.

Let’s take another look at the melody in “Don’t You Worry Child”. You can listen the melody below.

Below, I’ve highlighted every example of stepwise motion. 

This melody is primarily composed of stepwise motion.

For the first bar and a half, the melody uses only stepwise motion. It isn’t until the end of bar 2 that leapwise motion is introduced. Below, I’ve highlighted when the melody uses leapwise motion.

As you can see, a good amount of leapwise motion is used. This creates a bit of tension, which is resolved once the chord progression repeats.

Further, notice how most of the leapwise motion (the tenser motion) is on weak or medium beats. This results in less tension than leapwise motion would have on strong beats.

The key here is balance: a great melody has a purposely balance of stepwise and leapwise motion.

Space

The next element of a great melody is space. Finding the right spacing for a melody is all about balance.

Too many notes will make the melody difficult to remember, and too few notes will make the melody boring and uninteresting.

The right amount of space is subjective, and will heavily depend on the style of music you are writing.

It’s common to feel the need to fill up the entire MIDI roll with notes; however, this can often be detrimental.

You want a clear line for the listener to focus on, and you want that line to be easily understood.

When writing melodies, focus on the space between the notes. Be careful not to make it too busy.

Focus on what you want your melody to say, and say it with as few notes as possible.

Let’s take a look at the chorus of Martin Garrix’s “In the Name of Love”.

Below is the MIDI for the main melody (vocal chop) during the chorus.

The melody is relatively busy, but has essential pauses at bars 2 and 4. Below, I’ve highlighted the break at bar 2.

As discussed earlier, melody notes have more of an emphasis when played on strong beats.

The listener is expecting a note at bar 2, given the active melody in the first bar. When the melody pauses at bar 2, this adds tension that wants to be immediately resolved (which it is).

The same goes for the break at bar 4.

Overall, this careful use of space contributes to the tension and development of the melody.

Rhythm

Another essential component of a great melody is rhythm.

Like the notes themselves, the rhythm of the melody should be “simple” and easy to follow. 2-3 different rhythmic patterns in a melody is a safe bet, and will help make your melody easy to remember.

Let’s look back at “Don’t You Worry Child”. How do the rhythm of the melody and chords relate?

The rhythm of the melody and chords are the exact same. This makes the melody easy to remember because it’s rhythm is the same as the chords.

Similarly, the same rhythmic pattern repeats every bar. The notes change, but the rhythm stays the same.

The rhythm of this melody is compact and predictable, but it works for this song.

More often than not you’ll want a “tenser” rhythm then the one used in this melody. 

Let’s take another look at “In the Name of Love”. Below is the chorus melody.

There are two rhythmic patterns in this melody.

The first shape is present in bars 1 and 3. They’re highlighted below.

Bars 1 and 3 have the exact shame rhythmic pattern (and melodic pattern).

The second shape is present in bars 2 and 4. They’re highlighted below.

While bar 2 and bar 4 have a different melodic pattern, they share the same rhythmic pattern.

This makes bar 4 sound new, but familiar. It’s distinct from the melody in bar 2, but feels familiar since they share the same rhythmic pattern.

Focus on keeping the rhythm of your melodies interesting but easy to remember. As mentioned above, using 2-3 distinct rhythmic patterns in a melody is a safe bet.

Why so few?

Because familiarity is the key to proper melodic development.

Throughout the songwriting process, you’ll want to make changes that develop and push a track forward.

Familiarity breeds comfort, as it helps keep the listener engaged and excited.

Repetition

The last component of a great melody is repetition.

Repetition helps create melodic development that feels natural and familiar. Repetition helps ease the listener, which is better than bombarding them with new idea after new idea.

Repetition can reveal itself in a number of ways.

The main ways you’ll see repetition in a melody are:

  • Melodic repetition
  • Rhythm repetition
  • Shape/Contour repetition

Melodic Repetition

Simply put, melodic repetition is when a melody repeats.

Looking back at the chorus melody from “In the Name of Love”, the 3rd bar repeats the 1st bar. This is an example of melodic repetition.

Treat melodic repetition like you would adding a spice while cooking. It’s something you want to have, but too much of it can ruin your track.

Rhythmic Repetition

Rhythmic repetition is when a melody plays different notes with the same rhythmic pattern. It’s a great way to develop a motif in a way that sounds new, but familiar.

As discussed, in the chorus of “In the Name of Love”, the 4th bar repeats the same rhythmic pattern as the 2nd bar. 

Rhythmic repetition is powerful technique because it breeds familiarity while helping develop and push a track forward.

Contour Repetition

Alongside rhythmic repetition, melodies can also repeat shapes or contours. Melodies can be looked at as having a shape, where they naturally rise up, fall down, and make leaps up and down.

Contour repetition, i.e. repeating the same melodic shape, is another way to introduce repetition.

Take the example below, a 2 bar melody in the key of C Major. While the first and second bar differ, they have the same exact melodic shape and rhythm. The only difference is the starting note.

This makes the 2nd bar feel familiar, despite it playing a different melody line.

All in all, the memorability of your melody relies on repetition. Repetition makes your song easier to follow, helping to strengthen the overall message of your track.

Learning From the Pros

As you’ve seen in the examples above, deconstructing the melodies of memorable tracks is a great way to learn how to write memorable tracks yourself.

This is by far the best way to learn how to write catchy and memorable melodies.

There is no “hack” to writing great melodies. If you were looking for a quick fix, I apologize.

The only way to get better at this is through deliberate practice and experimentation.

Deliberate practice is the fastest way to turn your passion for music into a sustainable career.

How to Fix a Bad Melody

We’ve looked at the core components of a great melody and how important it is to break down and analyze your favorite melodies.

But what about when you’re writing a track and can’t figure out why your melody doesn’t work?

Using the same tools above, you can break down your melody to figure out why it doesn’t work.

Here are some questions to get you in the right mindset:

  • Motion: How is the motion of your melody? Does it move around too much, or is it too static?
  • Space: How is the space of your melody? Is it too busy or too sparse?
  • Rhythm: How is the rhythm of your melody? Is it too complicated, or is it too repetitive?
  • Repetition: Is there any repetition? Is the melody easy to remember?

Outside of these, it always helps to gain a second opinion.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you’ve gained a better understanding of the main components of a great melody.

Using the tools above, you now have a proper framework to break down melodies and figure out why they work (or why they don’t work).

If you focus on implementing the techniques discussed above, I promise in time you will become a more confident and competent songwriter.

Lastly, if you want a melody writing cheat sheet and some MIDI files, make sure to grab our MIDI pack below!

Download the free cheat sheet

About the Author

Connor O'Brien

Product manager at EDMProd. He is the author of Songwriting for Producers, the Ableton Workflow Bible, and our popular article series: Track Breakdowns