Songwriting basics and tips 11: Mega Melodies …

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

How many melodies can you cram in?

We’ve already looked at songs which add a memorable instrumental line to the main vocal line. This serves to add more “hooks” to grab audience attention.

Let’s take that a little further and see how you can add more melody to a song and make it even MORE memorable. The best way to do that is by example, and the best example I can think of is by the best songwriting band ever: The Beatles.

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The world is round and full of tunes …

One of the most melody-crammed songs The Beatles ever wrote was Because on their epic Abbey Road album. Let’s just deconstruct exactly what they did to make that song such a cornucopia of musical delights.world.gif

The instruments:

  • George Martin, on the harpsichord, plays a series of melodic arpeggios
  • John Lennon comes in doubling those arpeggios on guitar
  • George Harrison plays a simple counter-melody to the impending vocal line
  • next Paul alternates octave jumps and a short 2-quaver  1-crotchet [US 2-16th 1-8th] classical-sounding run that straddles the bars
  • the song moves into a short bridge in which George Harrison plays another arpeggio line creating a euphonium-like tone on a Moog synthesizer – the synth comes in again playing the main melody with a flute-like sound towards the end

The vocals:

  • when the bass enters, the vocals also come in with, effectively, 2 harmonising melodies around the main tune – John, Paul, & George singing (in case you’re wondering where Ringo is, he’s playing a guide track over the headphones on his hi-hat so that all the overdubs come in at the correct points!)
  • additionally, the vocal melodies are reinforced by a technique known as stacking in which each vocal line is recorded 3 times, giving 9 voices singing 3 partsstack.gif
  • to get a clearer idea of the sheer genius behind the vocal parts, listen to this vocals-only version of Because from Anthology 3

In short, The Beatles have absolutely maximised the melodic content of the track – just about every part of the piece is a moving line – to create what is arguably one of their most beautiful songs.

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Taking the tune home …

Another great example of maximising melody is Paul Young’s take on the old Marvin Gaye number Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home) .

The original was a Marvin Gaye B-side that wasn’t particularly impressive – you can compare it here.

Paul Young essentially changes it from a primarily rhythm-based song to a melodic number by slowing it down and creating space for both the vocal and instrumental melodic components to shine through.hatbass.gif

  • the song opens with Who and Jools Holland bassist Pino Palladino playing, on a fretless instrument,  a partially-chorded bass melody that was actually inspired by the bassoon melody at the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – give it a listen!
  • Palladino continues to alternate rhythmic and melodic playing all the way through the song.
  • Keyboard player Ian Kewley also strategically places short melodic runs, that help build the piece, all through the song.
  • the percussion is tuned melodically
  • and Paul Young’s slower vocal stresses the strong melodic line far more than Marvin Gaye’s throwaway version.

The original is clearly B-side material; the later take is indisputably an A-side hit.

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A few notes on how it’s done …

These observations are just that – they’re not absolute rules. People have had hits by using different tactics altogether. However, I can pretty much guarantee that these will work!

  • if you’re using a bass for a counter-melody, try to make most of the lines go in the opposite direction to the vocal, ie when the vocal run goes up, the bass-line goes down
  • many people counsel against having any instrument harmonising the main melody a fourth or fifth below – a technique known as parallel fourths or parallel fifths – this will produce a bagpipe-like drone effect,
    eg main melody goes C E F A G and harmony goes G B C E D
    my feeling is that it can occasionally be quite effective – mainly in folky-type arrangements, but shouldn’t be overdone
  • other instrumental melodic lines are probably best inserted in gaps in the vocal line, or as bridging elements over two lines
  • vocal counter-melodies can run together with the main tune – as with Because – or have their own independent line, or do both – as in the Beach Boys’ masterpieces God Only Knows and Good Vibrations – both of which, incidentally, are great examples of multiple-melodic arrangement.

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Next time, we’ll look at building bridges!  See you then!

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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