Whether you're writing vocal music or instrumental music, this is very important. Your melody should be simple enough to get stuck in the listener's head. With instrumental music, because there are no lyrics, the melody should be embellished more (trills, bends, slides, vibrato, extra notes), but the foundation of the melody should remain singable. Share your melody with a singer and have them sing it back to you. If they struggle to do this, your melody is not singable. If they sing it well and with ease, congratulations! You've written a singable melody!
2. Use chord tones.
If you already have harmony in place, choose melody notes that are part of that chord. For example, over a G chord, use G, B, or D as your melody note. This is not a hard a fast rule, but it will work every time. Try this exercise - Diagram your chords and the notes they contain:
With your diagram complete, practice writing as many different melodies as possible, and see which combinations work best for you.
1. Stepwise motion.
Move in the smallest distance possible most of the time. Most famous melodies move in stepwise motion the majority of the time ("Ode to Joy," for instance). Try it with the diagram we made. If we start with G as our chord tone, we have an equally good choice in moving to F# or A when we hit the D chord. Let's go with F# for right now. After F#, we again have an equally good choice for E or G when playing the C chord.
2. After a jump, step in the opposite direction.
When you jump or skip to a note not directly next to the current note, follow it with a step in the opposite direction (check out "Over the Rainbow" from "The Wizard of Oz"). This is a classical music "rule," and it's worked time and time again with my students. Here are three examples: G D E, G D C, and G D G. Which of those three melodies will sound the best? When given the choice, my students always choose G D E, because it follows the "rule" of stepping opposite the jump. They choose it without knowing the rule ahead of time. Of course, you are free to choose anything you want, but keep this guideline in mind, and your melodies will be more singable and memorable.
Once you have your chord tones and a few variations set in place, you can begin to add other non-chord tones and passing notes to fill in any gaps. At the end of the day, it's your music and there are no "rules," but remember, the most famous melodies of all time follow these rules, in general (there are always a few exceptions). Either way, this exercise will only serve to improve your melody-writing and will not result in your music sounding too "theory-based" or "analytical," as some may worry about. Write melodies using this method even when you're feeling uninspired, and when the time comes that you do feel inspired, you'll have one more tool in your toolbox to ensure that your melody is the absolute best it can be!
About the Author:
Eric Bourassa trains rockstars in his music studio full time and lives in Fort Worth with his wife and two kids. He plays shred guitar at church by day, shred guitar at music venues by night. He dislikes long walks on the beach. For examples of catchy, instrumental rock melodies with lots of chord tones and shred interludes, visit www.ericbourassa.com.