The Importance of Melodies in Songwriting

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on January 20, 2010

How to create melody? That’s the big question. Why is it that, given any number of possible combinations of successive tones and time values, one combination may move us while others leave us untouched? No one knows for sure. This is the mystery of melody. Good melody writing is partly a creative gift. Ideally, it’s a fusion of the creative and the technical; taking the creative idea and carving it into perfection. There’s no fool-proof formula, but the next best thing is to have a professional-level grasp of the materials you’re working with—the emotional qualities of scale tones and intervals, the shape and reach of lines. Get in the habit of analyzing great melodies. Maybe you’ll discover their elusive secrets and write some of your own. 

Where Do Melodies Come From? 

Most of the melodic lines we write probably “just come to us.” We “hear” them in our minds. As far as we know, no one has ever satisfactorily explained just how this works. The ancients spoke of “listening to the muses,” religious cults and New Agers have envisioned “tuning in to the universal mind,” or “hearing the music of the cosmos” or some such weirdness. Our theory is that these tune fragments that parade themselves through our minds are probably a synthesis of the music we’ve listened to. Just as our memory mechanism can search out and bring up past events like a computer, the music department of our subconscious is also at work, manufacturing new combinations from music we’ve stored there. 

Sometimes it even works in our sleep. The Bible explains it this way: “A dream comes through much business” (Ecclesiastes 5:3.) If your business is music you’re likely to dream music. We’ve recently heard of at least four major songwriters who profess to having heard at least part of a new song in a dream. 

Call it inspiration or whatever you like—but it’s the ability to finish the song that makes the difference. And that’s where craft comes in. Remember our greenhouse analogy?: 

Seeds (the music we hear) fall into the ground (our minds) and die (fade from our conscious memory.) They germinate in darkness. (We don’t keep worrying at them.) Then one day we notice a little green shoot coming up (a motif.) We water it and nourish it (play around with it.) As it grows we shape it according to our knowledge of our craft. When it’s full grown we prune it (improve it, find the right sounds, tones, intervals, shapes, feelings, colors, words.) The subconscious may do much of the work but rarely brings it all the way. There comes a time when conscious deliberation takes over and finishes the job. Did God give the song? Yes, but through a gestation process in the mind of the skilled songwriter. It’s an organic process, husbanded to fruition by the artist. This is art.

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