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Creating Hit Melodies
By Mary Dawson - 11/21/2002 - 10:34 PM EST

This is the way I heard the story…..

Several generations ago, there lived two spinsters (Miss Hill and her sister, Miss Hill) who both taught elementary school in a one-room schoolhouse. Every morning when they would enter the classroom, the students would sit up straight at their desks and sing:

Good morning to you
Good morning to you
Good morning dear teachers
Good morning to you


One day, a student in the school had a birthday. To celebrate, the teachers decided to change the lyrics of the opening song slightly to honor the student. The "revised" version went like this:

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday dear Johnny
Happy Birthday to you


Being the savvy sisters they were, they immediately realized they had a "hit" on their hands and they had the foresight to copyright their new song. Over the decades that followed, it earned the title of the Most Sung Song in History -- a title which it still holds to this day. And every time the song is recorded or publicly performed, the copyright owners collect royalties! Don't you wish YOU had written it?

Is this simply an interesting bit of trivia? Or something much deeper? I would suggest that this timeless classic, Happy Birthday to You, summarizes exactly what we've been learning so far in our series on the DNA and RNA of songwriting.

1) The Sisters Hill had a Great Idea for a song! Talk about a universal concept that every person on earth can relate to! We all have birthdays -- whether we like them or not -- and we all celebrate them.

2) They hung the Great Idea on a clear, focused Hook -- Happy Birthday to You

3) They already had a Cadence from the previous Good Morning song that they adapted slightly to fit the new words

4) The Melody (also kept over from the Good Morning song) is memorable, singable, trans-generational and as universal as the Idea itself…which brings us up to today's segment on creating hit Melodies

Up to this point we have been concentrating primarily on the lyrical content and rhythm of the song. But, as you may recall, songs are comprised of four elements: Lyrics, Rhythm (or Cadence), Melody and Harmony. It is now time to turn our attention to the creation of melody.

It is at this point that many aspiring songwriters begin to feel intimidated. While all of us have studied language and word usage in school, many of us have had little to no music training. We may not be able to read or write music well -- or at all -- and we certainly would never be able to write notes down on music paper! We therefore assume (mistakenly) that we do not have the skills to compose any kind of melody and if we hope to write songs at all, we will have to restrict ourselves to writing lyrics only.

Would it surprise you if I told you that many of the greatest composers of contemporary hit songs can neither read nor write music? Would it further surprise you to learn that writing melody is a completely different skill than playing a musical instrument, reading music or understanding music theory? Would you be relieved to know that most music industry professionals do not expect your song to be written out on music paper? If your answer to any of these questions is "yes," read on.

Writing hit songs is really more about communication than it is about technical knowledge of either words or music. Songs transmit emotional truth from the heart of the songwriter to the hearts of (hopefully) millions of listeners. Most of those listeners have less knowledge of music than you do and they really don't care if you have skillfully used a "flat 9" or not! What they are looking for is a song that touches them, that calls out an emotional response from their hearts. As hit songwriter, Sandy Knox, says so eloquently, "At the end of one of my songs, I want my listeners to laugh, to cry or to want to make love….it's as simple and as challenging as that!"

The melody of the song transmits the message of the lyrics to the heart of the listener. If it is well written, the melody is the part of the song the listener usually remembers first and longest. It's the part we can't stop whistling or singing in the shower. The harmony -- or the chord structure used under the melody -- exists to support and enhance the melody and can be changed to create different moods.

Like an elegant, well-tailored basic black dress, a great melody is beautiful alone, but it can also be accessorized with a variety of harmonic "jewelry." The important thing is to make sure the basic black dress -- or the melody of your song -- is masterfully crafted and "fits" well before you begin to add the accessories.

Songwriters who play an instrument and know some music theory, may actually be at somewhat of a disadvantage when facing the challenge of creating a great melody. The temptation is always to "go to the chord that is familiar" and try to create a melodic line that will somehow sound good with the chords you know. This is sort of like buying a necklace first and then trying to find a dress to go with it later -- a cart-before-the-horse process, if you know what I mean. For this very reason, even accomplished composers often prefer to write away from their instrument. They may go for a walk or a drive without even a guitar for accompaniment and try to create a melody that expresses the emotion of the idea they are writing about without being immediately preoccupied with the harmonics, which can be added later.

One of the greatest hit melody writers of all time is Burt Bacharach. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Burt composed one hit after another -- each one unique and unforgettable. What was his secret? He wrote away from his instrument, the piano. He says:

You can hear a long line that way. You can hear the whole song. You can hear it evolve, and not be as concerned with what the fingers and the hands are playing, where they are going. It's short term with my hands on the piano. It sounds really good for that one bar, but I'm trying to hear the whole thing and hear how it would sound just coming at you as a song, as a listener. If you get away from the piano and hear the melodic contour as well as the harmonization in your head, you're hearing a long vertical line.

How about you? Are you ready to give it a go and start a melody? You may want to begin by speaking your hook statement over and over again in a variety of different cadences -- inserting pauses and holds to emphasize different words in the phrase. For example, suppose your hook statement is: You Are My Only Love. You could create a variety of different "feels" and moods for that statement by emphasizing various words.

You (pause--pause--pause) are my only Love
Here the emphasis is on the word, You, because of the pauses following it.

You are my on - (hold -- hold) - ly (hold -- hold) Love
In this case the emphasis is on the word, only, because both syllables are held and sustained.

You are my (hold -- hold -- hold) only Love
Here the emphasis is on my, creating still a different meaning and mood

As you continue to repeat your hook statement, try placing the sustained words on sustained notes and the other words on notes with shorter counts. It will not be long before you begin to hear a melody in your mind. Try several sequences before you finally settle on the one you like best -- then record it so you won't forget it until it has become engrained in your mind.

If you play an instrument, you may want to add the chords you are hearing with your melody - or you may choose to enlist the help of an arranger. Arrangers are musicians who are proficient in music theory and are able to "arrange" a melody with some creative harmonies. I promise you: if your melody is great, a good arranger will be able to find the chords necessary to make your "basic black" sound spectacular and to display it in a variety of different emotional moods. You would be amazed at how many hit melodies have been created by songwriters who simply sang them into a box recorder with noaccompaniment whatsoever!

Next time, we will go further into the creation of melody, but until then, remember that songwriting is NOT rocket science. It is not something to be feared but rather to be felt. If you are in touch with your emotions and you are beginning to express them in notes as well as in words, you will increase your confidence level with every new melody you write. Remember the Hill Sisters' Hit Song that is known and sung at every birthday party worldwide! Who knows….generations from now, someone may be writing an article analyzing YOUR hit song!

©2002/CQK Music
All Rights Reserved


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