What Makes a Melody Great, by Paul Zollo

What Makes a Melody Great - Paul Zollo for The Songwriting School of Los Angeles


Although mankind has made miraculous leaps in understanding the natural world, our understanding of how the brain perceives and maintains music is mostly a mystery. “Ear-worms,” from the German ohrwurm,  those tunes that play in your head seemingly on their own, are entirely a mystery to scientists, who are just beginning to scratch the surface of this puzzle. This phenomenon – also called “headsong” and “humsickness” -- has been an integral part of human experience since the dawn of man, yet to us in the 21st century we live with it every day, like primitive man’s acceptance of the sun, with no real understanding of how it works.

So those of us who spend our time writing songs, discovering and inventing melodies to merge with language, accept that we’re often reaching for something beyond our reach when composing melodies, being “married to a mystery,” as Leonard Cohen put it. How to best do that is something I’ve explored with many of our greatest songwriters, not one of which can offer an easy answer, because there are no easy answers. “The secret of a great melody,” Dave Brubeck told me, “is a secret.”

The Songwriter Leonard Cohen, photographed by Paul Zollo
Songwriting is the condition of "being married to the mystery," remarks Leonard Cohen (Photo of Leonard Cohen by Paul Zollo)

So it is valuable and informative for songwriters to understand that we are dealing with a mysterious force here. Because the power of melody – merged with words especially – is well-known. The power of melody to transport, and to evoke emotions, and conjure up other times. It is strong stuff. Yet humans know more about sending a man all the way to Mars and back than they know about how melodies affect us, and how the mind perceives and stores them.

Brian Wilson smiled that sly Brian smile when I asked him what makes a melody strong, because he loves unanswerable questions about music,  he loves the vastness of this mystery; it’s where he lives.  “There’s no way you can tell what makes a melody good,” he said. “Every song is different. There are thousands and thousands of songs that have good melodies. The only way to know if a melody is good is to actually play it for somebody.”

Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, photographed by Paul Zollo
"The only way to know if a melody is good is to actually play it for somebody," says Brian Wilson (Photographed by Paul Zollo)

A songwriter’s mission is finding a melody that sounds new, but not so unexpected that it has no appeal, and not so obvious it sounds contrived. As the late Sydney Lumet said about movies, “Inevitability does not equal predictability.” 

So we songwriters necessarily swim into unknown musical waters, never sure where we might end up. Even the most schooled musicians among us often discover melody blindly, consciously venturing into places they’ve never gone before. I wondered if for even instrumental geniuses such as Herbie Hancock, who knows the piano more intricately and intimately than almost all other humans, there were still unexplored musical terrain. “Oh, yes, absolutely,” he said.  “It’s endless.”

Last time I interviewed Paul Simon, I mentioned Herbie’s answer, and he agreed: “Oh yes, it’s endless,” he said. “If it’s endless for Herbie, you could be sure it’s endless for me!”

Herbie Hancock holding two of his Grammys, photographed by Paul Zollo
Herbie Hancock on whether there is unexplored musical terrain, even for masters like himself: "Oh yes, absolutely. It's endless." (Photographed by Paul Zollo)

Simon said that to find melodies for his newest album,  So Beautiful or So What, it was “fingers on the guitar,” simply experimenting with different chord fragments and voicings which led to new tunes. Generally, songwriters discover melodies by finding and fashioning chord patterns.  But there are others, including the late Jay Livingston, melodist of “Silver Bells” and “Que Sera,” who preferred to write tunes in his  head – away from the piano, so as not to be too restricted by the limit of chords they play.

It was the first question I ever asked Livingston, a few years before I started doing this work officially. I met him in Jack Segal’s song workshop, where I had been a student for awhile, and totally in awe of meeting this songwriter who had written standards – songs the entire world knew and had known for decades, songs even my own mother knows! – I went to shake the very hard that created the melody of “Silver Bells” and “Que Sera” on a piano keyboard. I was nervous, and probably stammered, and when I asked if he generated melodies from chords or just thought of pure melody, he looked at me as if I was crazy, and maybe a little dangerous.

But I persisted, and when he understood the aim of my question, his demeanor shifted, realizing he was speaking to a fellow melodist, and someone who has been I that same ditch wanting to know how to get out. He told me he did both, but felt great melodies should stand – and soar – all on their own, without the chords.

(I learned then what a great privilege it would be – and is – to be an interviewer of these great songwriters, as I would enter with a license to ask all these kinds of questions and more. And when someone sits down with the intention of being interviewed, they listen carefully to nuanced questions, and appreciate being asked something they haven’t answered thousands of times before.)

Burt Bacharach also said he preferred to write a single melody line, apart from chords: “I’ve got to get away from the keyboard to hear what I’ve got,” he said, “I’ve always done that – get off the piano to the chair and just listen in my head to what’s going on. You’ve got to get the horizontal look.”

But the majority of songwriters I’ve interviewed compose melodies by singing  along with chords.  Although Jimmy Webb wrote all of “Didn’t We” in a car en route to Newport Beach, sans piano, generally he’s at the keys. “Even if chords are simple,” he explained, “they should rub. They should have dissonances in them. I’ve always used a lot of alternate bass lines, suspensions, widely spaced voicings. Different textures to get very warm chords. Sometimes you’re setting up strange chords by placing a chord in front of it that’s going to set it off like a diamond in a gold band. It’s not just finding interesting chords, it’s how you sequence them, like stringing together pearls on a string.”

Mose Allison, another legendary piano-based songwriter, also seasons his chords with dissonant voicings. “You get some dissonance in a chord,” he said, “either in the middle or the bottom of the chord. By using the same voicing on the right hand and varying the tonic,  you give it different colorations. The chords, you can suspend them and leave them unresolved. For example, you have F in the bass and then in your right hand,  a G, A flat and C . That’s one of the manifestations of the chord. Then you can put different tonics with it and get different effects. Hey, I’m giving away my secrets here!”

Paul McCartney photographed by Paul Zollo
Paul McCartney photographed by Paul Zollo

Any quick analysis of a Beatles tune or a Cole Porter tune will reveal often simple but  unexpected chords, chords that chromatically shift between keys, or between major and minor. In Lennon’s “Come Together,” for example, in D minor, the chorus shifts to  B minor on the title before going back to D minor. (Which is the VI of D major, not D minor – but so works).  And even in early Beatles tunes such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which is in C major,  the bridge goes to a Gm – the minor V – which lifts the song into a wholly new realm before delivering it back to tonic. Discovering such chordal turns, unexpected but delightful harmonic shifts,  is often an ideal springboard for good tunes. Much was made of the fact that Lennon & McCartney did not read music. They did read chords, though, of course – and both were quite proud of weaving in unusual chords into their songs, like going to the minor V, something they did in other songs.

“Interesting chords will compel interesting melodies,” said Webb. “It’s very hard to write a boring melody to an interesting chord sequence.” 

True, but is it a great melody? Interesting chords alone do not always lead to a compelling and memorable melody. But they don’t hurt!

Paul Zollo is the Senior Editor of American Songwriter magazine, and the author of Songwriters On Songwriting, Hollywood Remembered, and Conversations with Tom Petty.  His next book is the sequel to Songwriters On Songwriting, which comes out in October with Da Capo Press, More Songwriters On Songwriting, with new interviews with Leiber & Stoller, Elvis Costello,  Loretta Lynn, John Prine, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Randy Newman Chrissie Hynde, Stephen Stills, Kris Kristofferson, Herbie Hancock, Sia and many others.  A Trough Records artist, his most recent album was Universal Cure.He wrote all the songs with Darryl Purpose on the chart-topping and critically acclaimed Still The Birds, and recently wrote two songs with Dan Bern for his next album. He has started work with Matisyahu on his memoirs. He hosts the live interview version of his book, Songwriters on Songwriting, LIVE - Interviews by Paul Zollo, recorded in front of a live studio audience at The Songwriting School of Los Angeles.

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