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FREE music lessons from
Berklee College of Music

Melody in Songwriting:
Tools and Techniques for
Writing Hit Songs
Jack Perricone

Chapter 1
Melody: Some Basics

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The two basic elements of music that define melody are pitch and
rhythm. Melody is a succession of pitches in rhythm. The melody is
usually the most memorable aspect of a song, the one the listener
remembers and is able to perform.

A melodic phrase, much like a sentence or clause in verbal language,
usually encompasses a complete musical statement. A melodic phrase
usually defines itself by resting or holding or coming to some point of
resolution (rhythmically and/or tonally) and, especially in vocal music, is
directly related to the natural areas to breathe. Short phrases usually
group together to form a longer phrase.

In the following example, phrase 1 and phrase 2 group together to
form a longer phrase; phrase 3 and phrase 4 group together to form a
longer phrase.

There are two types of melodic motion: conjunct motion, which
proceeds by step from one scale degree to the next (i.e., by the interval
of a second) and disjunct motion, which proceeds by leap (i.e., by inter-
vals larger than a second).

A melody assumes character by a number of means: its rhythmic
structure, its contour, its tonal makeup, and its intervallic content. Most
vocal melodies consist of conjunct motion, which is the most natural and
comfortable to sing. It is usually the intervallic leaps, however, that give
a melody character and cause the melody to assume more of a memora-
ble profile.


melodic phrase

conjunct/disjunct melodic motion

Moderate Rock

phrase 1 phrase 2 phrase 3

phrase 4

Some Basics

Chapter 1

Ex. 1.1

Ex. 1.2 Conjunct motion produces a smooth vocal line

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It is absolutely essential to the craft of songwriting that the writer sing
the melody, feel it in the voice, reach for the high notes, and focus on ex-
periencing the relationship between the lyric and the melody. Much of
melody writing done for instruments, especially for the piano, is difficult
or impossible to sing. The following are to be considered when writing
for the voice:

1. How disjunct is the melody? Too many intervallic leaps can cause
the melody to be difficult or impossible to sing.

2. Does the vocalist have time to breathe between phrases? Is the
phrase so long that it doesn’t allow the singer to breathe?

3. Is the vocal range of the song too great? Does the range within a
section of the song change too quickly?

The range of the average pop vocalist is as follows:


Ex. 1.3 Disjunct motion is more difficult to sing.

Ex. 1.4 Conjunct and disjunct motion, working together, usually produce a good result.

writing for the voice

leap leap leap

Ex. 1.8

Female Male

Rock Tenor or


Ex. 1.5

Ex. 1.6

Ex. 1.7
2 octaves plus major 2nd

(sounds 8va lower)

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The lead sheet format reflects the importance of the melody. Harmonic
voicings, texture, and orchestration are not found in lead sheets. The
lead sheet solely contains the melody, the lyric, and the harmony notat-
ed with chord symbols.

The following guidelines for leadsheet writing are given to help elimi-
nate the usual errors.

1. The melody should be notated in a clear-cut but accurate fashion
in the treble clef. Notes and rhythms that are purely embellish-
ments need not appear on the lead sheet.

2. If a section of a song is repeated and some melodic rhythms and
pitches are slightly altered (as often happens in verse sections),
cue notes should be written for these deviations.

3. Chord symbols should appear directly over the beat or part of
the beat on which they are played. It may be necessary to
approximate this if a melody note is not sung on the exact

One of the most common errors is placing a chord in the middle
of the bar when the chord is intended to be sounded for the
entire measure. This is confusing to a player who must play the
chord on the first beat.

4. Each syllable of the lyric should be placed directly under the note
or notes to which it is sung. Spacing of the music is determined
by the length of words and syllables. Improper alignment of lyric
to melody is a common mistake that should be avoided, as shown

the lead sheet

guidelines for lead sheet writing

Ex. 1.9

There’s no






word; why should I?

Ex. 1.10

B F/E Eb Em7 5 A7/C# Cm7 F7

4th beat


Ex. 1.11

Won der why I feel so lone ly ev ’ry time I hear your name

Ex. 1.12

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Use seven- or eight-stave paper to allow for two or three sets of
lyrics to be placed under each stave.

5. Lyrics may include lowercase and uppercase letters or consist
entirely of uppercase letters. Lyrics are always printed.

6. Hyphens are used to separate syllables.

7. “Extended” lines are used for a one-syllable word or for the last
syllable of a polysyllabic word that occurs with tied or slurred

8. A slur should be written above or below the note heads for two
or more notes assigned to a single syllable.

9. The title should be capitalized and centered on the first page.
Indicate “words by” or “lyric by” followed by the lyricist’s name
and “music by” followed by the composer’s name in the upper
right section of the first page. It is wise to number the additional
pages and to print the song title in the upper right-hand corner
of each page.

10. A tempo or groove indication at the upper left of the first page
should be included.

11. A copyright notice should be written at the bottom of the first
page: Copyright © (year) by (copyright owner).

12. The lead sheet for the song is not an arrangement. In rare cases,
however, it may contain music that is not sung, such as an intro-
duction/interlude figure that the composer deems intrinsic to the
song. The lead sheet may contain a bass figure that is used
throughout the song and that is identifiably characteristic of the
song. The figure would be written once in the bass clef at the
beginning of the lead sheet with an indication to “play through-
out song” or “play on every chorus.”

An y thing’s pos si ble

Ex. 1.13

Ex. 1.14

Where’s he gone? Heav en.

Ex. 1.15

He’ll nev er, ev er leave.

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Try to keep such indications to an absolute minimum. The lead sheet
should represent the most essential ingredients of the song. These ingre-
dients can then be embellished by the vocalist(s), the accompanist, the
arranger, or the producer. Do not clutter the lead sheet with arranging
ideas or instrumental sections that are optional.

Since a lead sheet presents the song in a complete but concise way,
the use of first and second endings and other repeat signs should be

There is no need to use a repeat sign at the beginning of a piece since
the first ending automatically refers back to the beginning. If, however,
the repeat does not refer to the beginning of the piece, a repeat sign
must be installed at the beginning of the appropriate measure.

Other common and useful repeat signs are as follows:

D.C. (Da Capo means “go back to the beginning”)
D.S. (Dal Segno means “go back to the sign”)

In vocal music, it is best to place these signs above the staff and as
close to the end of the measure as possible.

Another useful symbol is , the coda sign. This symbol is used in the
last part of a piece where new material has been added to form the
ending or the “fade” ending. (Fade endings are often found in recording
situations but are seldom used in live performances.)

Often repeat symbols are combined. For example, D.S. al Coda means
“go to the sign , continue until you reach To Coda , and then jump to
the place in the manuscript where the coda sign appears.”

Occasionally a , double sign, is needed. This symbol is only used
after the direction D.S. has been used and an additional repeat is

Written directions such as “To Next Strain” or “Repeat and Fade” are
often used to save space. “To next strain” simply means to go on to the
next section of the piece. Some of these shortcuts are somewhat confus-
ing. They should be used only in lead sheets and are not recommended
when writing parts for players.

When actually composing the song, such shortcuts as putting in a repeat
sign after four measures in a verse section may discourage creative pos-
sibilities and choices that might have existed if you had allowed yourself
the space to realize them. (These could be as simple as changing one
pitch or rhythm or may entail adding a couple of measures of new

writing tip

repeat signs

1 2

Ex. 1.16

writing tip

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