For the past two weeks, every time I’ve got up from my desk to take a break and walk around for a bit, I’ve found myself whistling the catchy melody to Beat Service’s Remix of Waiting For The Night by Armin van Buuren.
This song is stuck in my head. I can’t get rid of it, and honestly, I don’t mind.
There’s a reason people still listen to music from the 70’s. We like listening to music that can be remembered.
What’s unfortunate is that few producers give thought to memorability—they make music that’s unnecessarily complicated, changes too often or simply lacks the “hook” that such music features.
In this post, I’m going to share 8 strategies you can use to make more memorable music. I use these strategies myself, and so do many others.
Why is it important to make memorable music? There are 3 main reasons.
- It stands out: The EDM scene is saturated with generic rehashed music. Memorable music stands out by accommodating an area in someone’s mind.
- It links with other experiences: Memorable music invokes memories. For example, every time I hear I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing by Aerosmith, I’m immediately reminded of my ex-girlfriend.
- It shows you’re a great artist: There’s a reason Top 40 producers get paid lots of money, and it’s not just because Top 40 music is popular. If you can consistently make catchy music, you’ll be respected as an artist and producer.
So, if you’re ready to make music like this…
…then this post will help.
(Yes, that was somewhat sarcastic. Even though Levels has become the source for hundreds of memes and jokes, it’s still a super catchy song and is, therefore, relevant to this article.)
Here’s what I’ll be going over:
- The Importance of Melody in Relation to Memorability
- Vocals: Giving Your Music a Human Element
- Why a Single Sample Can Change the Perception of Your Song
- Using Outside Influence to Your Advantage
- Remembering Rhythm: The Part Most People Forget
- Clearly Defining Your Song’s Structure
- Incorporating Symmetry on a Macro and Micro-level
- Why Simplicity Reigns Over All Else
Note: Due to the nature of this post, I’ve barely scratched the surface on some topics and strategies. I highly encourage you to do further research on areas that peak your interest.
Making Memorable Music Takes Time
If you’re hoping to get to the end of this post and have the ability to make a catchy song straight after, then I’ve got some bad news for you.
Making memorable music takes time and effort.
It takes trial and error, and it requires a ton of feedback from others.
The strategies shared in this article are better categorised as “skills.” For example, being able to write a catchy melody is a skill, just as clearly defining your song’s structure is.
A skill is not something you can immediately acquire—it’s something that’s developed over time.
With that said, learning about these strategies is helpful regardless of your skill level as a producer. I wish I’d learned about them earlier on.
Whether you’ve been producing for 5 years or 5 weeks, there’s something here for you.
1. Create Melodies that Listeners Remember
If you have any hopes of making memorable music you need to learn a thing or two about writing melodies. To do this, it’s important to know what makes a melody catchy.
Note: if you want to learn more about creating memorable melodies, read this post.
There are several characteristics of a memorable melody:
- Strong rhythm: Most if not all memorable melodies feature a strong rhythm. The horizontal placement of notes (rhythm) is just as important as the vertical placement.
- They’re simple: The cathciest melodies in dance music are simple. Take Eric Prydz’ Every Day, for example, it’s basic, but it works.
- They’re logical: Some melodies jump from one note to the next leaving a significant distance between them, others are more subtle and go up and down by one scale degree. In any case, memorable melodies are logical – they make sense to the ear.
- They’re repetitive: Repetition is a fundamental element of memorability. Most popular melodies have heavy repetition, say, a repeating rhythmic or melodic motif.
Making a memorable melody is largely a process of trial and error; however, knowing music theory helps immensely. Pick up a copy of Music Theory: The TL;DR Version for free here.
Tip #1: Steal like an artist
“Good artists copy; great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso (before Steve Jobs cleverly stole it)
Before you become fully enraged, know that I’m not advocating that you literally steal a full idea from someone else. If you steal a melody note-for-note from an existing song and use it in your own, I have no respect for you. It’s also illegal.
When I say “steal like an artist,” I mean you should use existing ideas, but only partially.
For example, you can take the rhythm from an existing melody, but change the vertical arrangement of notes to make it your own. Or you could take the vertical arrangement of notes from an existing melody and change the rhythm to make it your own.
Please note that this technique is meant to be a starting point, to inspire. If you steal an existing rhythm and find that a few notes need shifted, then shift them.
With the examples below, I’ve kept the rhythm and notes strict for the purpose of demonstration, but typically I’d use the rhythm or notes as a starting point only.
Here’s an example for each:
Stealing the rhythm from Enur ft. Natasja – Calabria
New Melody (with original rhythm)
Sure, you can notice some similiarites, but it’s still different.
Stealing the melody from Enur ft. Natasja – Calabria
You’ve already seen and heard the original melody. Here’s a completely different rhythm, using the same notes and a different sound.
But Sam, I can clearly hear the influence!
Of course you can, because A) as mentioned above, I’ve kept exactly to the rhythm and melody in each case, and B) you knew that I’d changed it and were automatically listening for the original melody.
Again, I have to stress that this is simply a starting point. However, it’s easier to create a memorable melody if you use a memorable melody as initial inspiration.
Tip #2: Iterate, Iterate, then Iterate Again
A lot of people look at electronic music production from a binary perspective–that something either works or doesn’t work. Writing catchy melodies is not an easy task.
It’s something you probably won’t get right the first time, but that doesn’t always mean you should scrap what you’ve done and start again.
Let’s say you spend an hour working on a melody. For the first 15 minutes or so, you like it, but as you begin to develop it further, you find that it doesn’t have the memorable quality you’re after. You could scrap it and try again, or you could iterate.
Look at melody writing as a series of iterations rather than just one single task. For example, here’s what the process might look like (hypothetically–use your imagination):
- Iteration 1: Original melody you’ve created and are not happy with
- Iteration 2: Change contour to go down in the last two bars instead of upwards
- Iteration 3: Extend melody to 8 bars instead of 4 and add variation on last bar
- Iteration 4: Remove “filler” notes to make the melody more simple and impactful
Sometimes your initial melody will be terrible, and you have to cut your losses, but if there’s even a slither of potential in your melody, you should iterate on it. Ask yourself how it can be improved; experiment; save different versions and so forth.
Note: If you want this process of iteration to be as effective as possible, ask people for feedback and make adjustments based on it.
It’s easy to think that your melody is or isn’t memorable when you’ve been listening to it for hours on end.
2. Use Vocals
It’s easier for people to sing along to actual words compared to instruments, so incorporating lyrics and vocals into your track is an excellent way to increase its potential to be remembered.
In the EDM world, a few examples of popular tracks (that contain vocals) come to mind:
Yes, Avicii – Levels is another popular track, but I don’t want it to become a running theme in this post (though I’m pretty sure it already has).
If you want to use vocals in your track, I highly recommend working with a vocalist. Here are a few reasons why:
- It forces you to work differently: If you’re not used to making vocal tracks, working with a vocalist will give you a pleasant surprise. You have to work differently. You have to structure and compose your track in such a way that the vocal will stand out.
- You develop a wider set of skills: Because you work differently when collaborating with a vocalist, you develop skills that you wouldn’t normally use otherwise (vocal compression, mixing around the vocal, and so forth).
- It’s fun: Sure, you can download a vocal construction kit and use the same vocal that 50 other people have used before you, but where’s the fun in that? Working directly with a vocalist has its difficulties, but overall it’s a creative and enjoyable experience.
If you can’t get in touch with a vocalist, or you feel you’re not at a sufficient level to work with one, then there are alternatives. You can:
- Record your own vocals: If you can sing, that’s great, you’re sorted. If you can’t sing (like me), then you’re limited as to what you can do in terms of vocals. You can still record a simple vocal line (a couple of words) and lay down some pitch correction and effects on it to cover your voice (again, Benny Benassi’s Satisfaction is a good example of this).
- Use construction kits: Ignore what other people say about them, vocal sample packs and construction kits are great tools. Never Cry Again by Dash Berlin makes use of a vocal sample pack. I highly recommend Siren by Veela if you’re looking for a decent set of vocal lines and sounds.
Note: lyrics obviously enter the picture as well, but I’m not a lyricist, so you’d be stupid to take advice from me.
3. Samples and Sampling
Using unique samples is a great way to make your track more catchy. There are two approaches here: sampling existing material from released songs, and finding memorable samples from sample packs and elsewhere.
If you want to release music on a label, then the first approach is one I’d avoid for obvious reasons. Clearing samples is difficult and can often cost a lot of money.
On the other hand, if you’re releasing music for free, then you can get away with it. It’s still not entirely legal, but people do it (I’m not advocating this).
A downside to using well-known samples is that the listener simply remembers the sample and not what you’ve done with it. Calabria has been sampled hundreds if not thousands of times, but at the end of the day, the listener only remembers the sample.
The other approach is to browse through sample packs and the internet to find samples that will give your track a unique edge.
For example, it’s popular at the moment to put a 1 bar vocal sample before the drop of your track – think Tsunami… or We’re the fucking animals. Simple, yes, but also memorable.
You don’t need to limit yourself to vocal samples as well. It could be a unique FX sound or drum loop. You have to dig deep to find unique samples that have the potential to be memorable.
4. Get Creative with Outside Influence
A lot of us shy away from incorporating other genres and styles into our music. We think that listeners won’t appreciate it, the song won’t flow, or it’s just too weird.
The fact of the matter is, when it comes to memorability, a song with a unique twist is going to stand out among the rest and stay ingrained in people’s minds.
A good example of a popular track that uses elements from other genres is Pep & Rash – Red Roses. It’s a future house track that features an awesome bassline, but the breakdown changes things up with a Western guitar lick.
Note: Another thing that adds to the memorability of this track is the vocal sample before the drop – “And then it hit me.”
You can use ideas from all genres, but you do have to be creative in how you merge things together. For example, jazz might work better with house than it does with trance.
That doesn’t mean you can’t mix jazz and trance, but it does mean you have to be a bit more careful about how you structure the track and transition from one section to the next.
The best way to gain outside influence is to listen to other music. Don’t just stay in the EDM bubble–go on Spotify and listen to something completely different.
5. Reap the Benefits of Rhythm
While harmony and melody are incredibly important in relation to memorability, there’s another musical element most people forget…
Some people remember rhythms like they do melodies. The rhythm of a song is stuck in their head, and they find themselves tapping it out on their steering wheel while driving or on their laps.
Disclosure’s Latch is a good example of a song that features a memorable rhythm. The triplet bassline sets it apart from many other songs out there, and combined with vocals and various other instruments it becomes a catchy tune.
Note: Focusing on your track’s underlying rhythm is even more important if you make a genre like techno where the melody is less emphasised.
6. Structure Your Song Properly
I give a lot of feedback to new producers. One common issue they always have is that their music doesn’t flow properly and its sections aren’t clearly defined. By this, I mean:
- The transitions aren’t smooth
- Parts (verse/chorus/bridge) overlap too much
- Energy and tension sounds unnatural
Having great flow in your track is essential if you want it to be memorable. Why? Because people won’t enjoy your track otherwise.
No one wants to listen to something that jumps from one section to the next without any warning.
People like to have their expectations fulfilled.
Even more important than flow is having clearly defined sections in your music. Clearly expressing to the listener that what they’re listening to at any given point is intentional. They know that the intro is the intro and that the chorus is the chorus.
Structuring your song logically, having clearly defined sections and proper flow, all combine to make your song more catchy. It’s easier for the listener to remember the arrangement.
Sure, you can have a killer melody and people will remember that, but you want listeners to remember the full song.
You want them to be able to run through the full track in their head, and they can’t do that if the track doesn’t flow or the sections aren’t clearly defined. It will simply be too messy for them to remember.
7. Use Symmetry
Another way to make your song catchy is to use symmetry. This can occur on a micro and macro-level, for example, you might create a symmetrical melody, which would be on the micro-level. Or, you might use symmetry over your whole arrangement.
8. Keep it Simple
If you take one thing away from this article, it should be this–if you want your music to be memorable, it has to be simple.
Most people do not remember complex arrangements and intricate melodies, they don’t remember triple-layered polyrhythms or FM sound design.
What they remember are the fundamental ideas, the simple melodies and vocals, the catchy hook.
Always think about what you can take away. Here’s a short post I wrote that relates to this:
Sure, making memorable and catchy music involves trial and error, but with the above 8 strategies, you’ll have a much higher chance of making something that gets stuck in someone’s head.
If you haven’t done so already, learn to create better and more memorable melodies, and also brush up on music theory. Both these will help immensely when it comes to making music that your listeners will remember.