The Importance of Melody

It seems that the art of melody writing has been forgotten in some circles. I’ve heard a number of film and TV scores in the last few years that feature huge percussion beds under whole-note string and brass chords, but not a shred of melody. Don’t get me wrong, these cues usually sound great—full and rich and super high-fidelity—but nobody’s walking around humming them. They’re all surface and no substance.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit old-school when it comes to film scores. I love Bernard Herrmann, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. And there are plenty of more recent composers on my iPod as well: Michael Giacchino, Howard Shore, Thomas Newman and Patrick Doyle, to name just a few. Sure, these composers all write modern-sounding scores, but they also write great melodies, and melodies are what really gets people’s blood going.

What is it about melody? Why is it so important? Perhaps it’s because a melody contains all of the other aspects of music—pitch, rhythm, harmony, tempo, and dynamics. It’s all there. Rhythm by itself does not imply melody or harmony. Harmony by itself may imply a melody, but usually not a very memorable one. A pitch is just that, a pitch and nothing more. Melody is the only aspect of music that can truly stand on its own, and this is why it’s so crucial to get it right.

Here are two examples to demonstrate my point. The first is a cue that’s all rhythms and pads with no melody. It sounds cool, but it’s fairly boring:

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The second is the same cue, but with a melody added. Listen to how much more engaging and exciting it is. A good melody gives the musical parts of your brain something to sing along with, which draws us into the piece:

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In the next post I’ll give you some guidelines on writing better melodies.

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