Songwriter’s Toolbox Part 1: Magic Melodies

By | April 6, 2021

Magic tunes – Keep it simple and singable (KISS)
There is something magical about inventing new melodies. There are only twelve notes and we only have seven to choose from if we stick to the scale notes “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-si- (do)”, ie the notes 1,2,3,4,5 , 6.7, (8). They usually go a long way. Although some tones may sound familiar, it still seems as if the variants never run out. But not all melodies we write automatically become “magical” in the sense that they capture our listeners in the way we ourselves were once captured by the tones of our own favorite songs. We want our melodies to fascinate and touch.

Tom Petty illustrates the beginning of the series with the song Free Fallin ‘.

This mystique and magic surrounding the songwriting process itself is something some want to be a little afraid of to keep the creative desire and curiosity alive (including the most successful songwriter of all time Paul McCartney), and of course there is no exact formula for how to write a song. But I want to say that you have nothing to lose by thinking more closely about whether there are any typical characteristics of what makes a good melody good. All with the aim of getting better at their craft. Mediocre, “completely okay” and in the worst case bland melodies are relatively easy to twist, but the aim should be set much higher than that.

Keep it simple with short repetitive phrases
Have you ever considered that some of the best tunes contain only a few notes? It is easy to get into trouble too much and it ends up with the melody winding here and there and new phrases taking turns in a never-ending stream. You can then experience that the melody lacks direction and structure, which is a big no-no!

A good melody also contains good pauses. There is much more “music” than you might think in the silence between the phrases. The breaks are also a prerequisite for it to be possible to sing. You have to breathe as well. And otherwise only long harangues remain which the listener finds difficult to absorb.

The trick is to work with short, repetitive phrases. One of my favorite examples that illustrates how easy one can dare to be is (now deceased, editor’s note) Tom Petty’s song Free Fallin ‘(Spotify / Apple Music) which is also his biggest hit during his 40-year career. The chorus contains two three-syllable phrases with a total of three different tones. And I’m free on notes 1, 1 and 3 followed by Free fallin ‘on notes 3, 2 and 1. This is repeated almost identically and thus the chorus is in port. I repeat: Short. Repetitive. Phrases.

Free Fallin ‘with Tom Petty. A song that started as a fun song when Tom played with a cheap mini keyboard. Legendary producer Jeff Lynne said “It’s great!”. Tom asked, “What’s great?” Jeff replied, “Everything’s great! Keep going! ”.

If you look at the verse, you discover that it also contains the same three notes, albeit one octave down. Of course, the lyrics, the vocals and the production contribute enormously to the whole – but it is still a reminder of how three small notes can evoke great emotions.

The song She’s the one with Robbie Williams (Spotify / Apple Music) – which was originally made by the charming pop band World Party – is another clear example of how you can touch with a few tones and syllables. Three or four notes go a long way again: I was her (1,2,3), she was me-ee (1,2,3,4,3) followed by a rehearsal of We were one, we were free-ee. Then there is “great drama”: And if there’s somebody (6, 6, 5, 3, 2, 2), calling me o-on (5,6,3,2,3), She’s the one (3,1 , 1). Then a retelling of the last phrase for safety’s sake. For repetition is good!

She’s the one with Robbie Williams (by World Party). Simple and beautiful. Such an obvious song you should do more often.

The drama at the end becomes so great because the fifth phrase breaks away from the slightly ingeniously simple phrases at the beginning. A lot is about creating conditions for this type of exciting contrasts. More about that below. Also note that the first four phrases are not perceived as annoying despite minimal variation.

This is largely due to the fact that the underlying chords are changed and that the same final note on the words “here” and “me” (3rd in the key scale) thus has a different “function”, more specifically ters in the tonic (I) and 7th in relation to the subdominant (IV). This is a really brilliant trick to keep a simple melody alive.

Keep it singable with step-by-step movements
That a melody is “singable” is very much a positive quality. If it feels natural, easy and fun to sing, you are probably on the right track. One thing that unites Fly me to the moon, All my loving, Life on March, The Rose, Ida’s summer song and countless other beloved melodies that generation after generation happily sings along with is that they largely consist of step-by-step movements. The notes in the melody do not jump around on the scale hip as happ but rather “wave” up and down, a few notes at a time, and each individual jump is often no larger than the note next to it.

A thought-provoking example that strengthens the thesis that you can be frugal with notes and that it is important to have a clear direction is ABBA’s almost five-minute long melancholic masterpiece to the pop song The Winner Takes it All (Spotify / Apple Music).

Despite its length and slightly epic feel, the song contains a very limited tonal material and number of phrases, which is something that Björn and Benny themselves pointed out in various interviews. We take a look at the verse: I do not wanna talk, about things we’ve gone through, though it’s hurting me, now it’s history. Yes, you know the melody … We note that the phrases are relatively short, leaving room for pauses, and that the melody wanders up and down along the notes of the major scale except for a single major jump (down to talk). The tones of the last two phrases are identical and already here we have gone through half (!) Of the song’s melodic material.

The winner takes it all in the somewhat odd key F #, certainly chosen with care. Björn and Benny used to count backwards to ensure that the song’s highest note was always in the girls’ respective highest registers in order to reach a climax.

Create effect with big leaps
Mainly walking up and down the scale and jumping to nearby notes makes the melodies easy to sing and “logical”, but as with everything else in life, it can be too much of a good thing. To keep the interest up, we also have to break off and offer some surprises.

It is when you have built up a melody in the way that every major jump becomes dramatic and can be one of the “magical moments” that each song needs. The entrance to the chorus of the above-mentioned Life on March with David Bowie is a classic example, as are the last three notes in the phrase “take a look at the lawman” (1,8,5) in the middle of the chorus. One octave up and a quarter down. Mighty worse! But then it is also “the world’s best song”. Or…?

The chorus in The Winner Takes it all offers the interval small septima three times in a row. Note the short, repetitive phrases but now also with large leaps. The winner takes it all, the loser standing small, beside the victory, that’s her destiny. With these four phrases in the chorus as a contrast to the four in the verse, the melody is complete. Neither bridge nor stick is needed. Talk about magic melody! But as Benny Andersson himself said in an interview in the Sunday Times, 2009: “Music is not only melody; music is everything you hear, everything you put together. But without the core of a strong and preferably original melody, it does not matter what you dress it with, it has nothing to lean on. ”

Another who understood the greatness of the simple and that “keep it simple and singable” is Norah Jones. She broke through insanely big with her low-key style and sold an unimaginable 26 million albums of her debut album. By the way, is there any cafe in the world that does not play Norah Jones? In any case – take the chorus on the song Sunrise (Spotify / Apple Music) which goes And I said oooo, oooo, oooo, oooo (1,2,1,6,3,5,1). Then repeat the oooo party twice more (repetition is good!) And end with a small, gentle to you. It is economical, tasteful and neat. Simple and singable as I said!

Sunrise.png.460e3eb04d59b25f3db2e1cd71c4f2bd.pngThe melody for Sunrise. Few words but highly effective chorus. An “oooo” says more than a thousand words.

Create contrast between different song parts
Contrasts are needed to keep the interest alive in a song. It creates dynamism, which is one of the songwriter’s main tools. A good melody offers variety and a feeling that you have been on a “journey” and therefore we should make sure that the different song parts differ from each other.

One of the absolute best – and consequently most common – tricks to get a chorus to “lift” is to go up in registers so that the highest notes are in the chorus. All the songs mentioned above are good examples of this. If, for example, you lie a lot around the root note (1) or ters (3) in the verse, it is a classic to aim somewhere around the fifth (5) or octave (8) of the chorus.

Listen to and be inspired by others
The best school to learn to recognize such grips is of course to check out their own favorites or turn on the radio and listen to current hit songs. The examples in the text are taken from my own record collection, but the theories can most often be applied to the current top list of today, whether the artist’s name is Katy Perry, Bruno Mars or something else.

Yes but then so! It was easy !? Good luck writing melodies with short, repetitive phrases and step-by-step movements with occasional, surprising jumps and magical moments and contrast in registers between the different song parts (breath…). And if that doesn’t work, the only true rule is: “Sounds good, sounds good!”.



  • Keep it simple with short repetitive phrases

  • Keep it singable with step-by-step movements

  • Create effect with big leaps

  • Create contrast between different song parts

About the writer David Myhr
@David Myhr is a songwriter and artist and has released the albums Soundshine (2012) and Lucky Day (2018). He has a past in the pop band The Merrymakers and has written songs for the Japanese market, music for a lot of commercial jingles and some film music. On a daily basis, he works as a university lecturer and teaches e.g. songwriting at the Academy of Music in Piteå but also teaches at KMH and SMI. David, who is a Beatles connoisseur on a large scale, works in a classic songwriting tradition.
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Parts of the series

The article was originally published 2013-12-27 13:46