Everyone loves a good melody, and whether you’ve ever thought about it or not, you’ve instinctively memorized more than you can possibly imagine. The question today is: what makes a melody good?
Of course, good is relative, so I’ll mostly try to focus on what can make a memorable melody. Like the Zelda main theme, or the Mario main theme, or whatever. Since there’s a lot of opinions overall in this category, so I’ll also try to avoid overstating my own opinions. To get it out of the way now; melodies are my favorite part of music, and I feel they’re extremely important to music (which is why I tend to dislike rap). There’s tons of music without melodies, however, and music is meant to be loved by everyone through its many, many outlets, not by any single song. But anyway, since that’s out of the way, let’s begin.
In a coincidental effect, putting more melody in a song overcomplicates the song in general. There’s a ton of leeway in here, however, letting melodies range from THIS to THIS. Clearly, the Ocean Theme has a lot less to its melody, but it’s just as memorable as the more exciting Metal Harbor. Since there is so much to cover, it’s rather difficult to cover it all. So, for ease of access, this will give you the basic and (in my opinion) most helpful tips.
Most people like an interesting melody. I feel this is a given when it comes to music, and therefore it’s important to understand what makes a melody interesting, without just adding a bunch of notes (because that sounds bad usually).
One method for making an interesting melody is using different rhythms. Not to put melodies that only use quarter notes in a lower light, but things are more interesting when there are more kinds of notes. Dotted notes, half notes, sixteenth notes, whatever. In general, this tends to create a certain musical interest. To further this point, another useful tactic is “syncopation.” This is playing notes on the offbeats rather than the downbeats, or playing on the “ands” of the measure rather than 1, 2, 3, 4. Take the Super Mario Bros. Overworld Theme, for instance.
Each note highlighted in blue is on an offbeat (in this case the “e’s” and “a’s” if you count sixteenth notes as 1e&a 2e&a etc.). 12 out of 24 notes are on these syncopated beats, plus there’s a triplet in there which also contributes to syncopation. Sure enough, this theme is so catchy that it is quite possibly in the top 10 most well-known songs of all time.
Of course, syncopation isn’t everything, another tactic in VGM is making the melody dramatic. There’s a lot of opinions on what this means, but the point I’m trying to get across is that your notes shouldn’t be moving in small steps all the time. Looking back up to the Mario Theme, we see that first measure has that huge leap down of an entire octave. In the next measure there’s a lot less movement, but then that third measure spans from that G to the A another octave higher, which is a 9th! This makes your ears interested and they tune in to listen and remember the contrast in pitch.
This does not always apply, however. In music that is sung, this dramatic approach is very frowned upon for various reasons, the biggest being that it’s just hard to sing a full 9th in four notes. So in verbal music, small steps are loved and constantly being used. Take a listen to any song on the radio, and most of the lyrics (if they move at all) will likely move one step at a time, never leaping higher than a fifth ever. Of course, radio music is still catchy, and although it relies quite a bit on fun progressions mixed with syncopation, this doesn’t make it less interesting. Take the Super Smash Bros. series, for instance. In Melee (which has my favorite theme) there is plenty of large leaps, immediately at the beginning of the piece, and they just get more exciting! In Brawl, however, the main theme has lyrics (that people like to argue over the quality of). This means the theme can’t be so jumpy, and sure enough, it isn’t. But the main theme is still epic, as even the harshest of critics would be inclined to agree! (here they are, Melee then Brawl)
Both epic, in their own right.
This leads us to another part of a good melody…
Stick To Your Chord
This is another tactic with lots of leeway, but in short, the idea is to use the strong beats in a measure to correspond with the chord of your progression. Starting a song in C major is all fine and good, but if the melody never even hits C E or G, how are we supposed to know that’s the key? By no means am I telling you to only use the notes in the triad (although that could be a fun exercise and challenge :D), rather just that you need to use them in a strong beat in general. Maybe make the first note your tonic, then move away to be a little more interesting. Better yet, stall the tonic with the note below or above, then hit it for a nice emphasis. In any given measure, different notes are stressed naturally, and for a song easy on the ears, it’s best for those to be on your chord. Or maybe don’t put any on the chord in the penultimate measure, then resolve into a nice triad, or something. Basically, play to your progression or progression to your melody, but don’t have mismatched nothingness (unless that’s what you’re going for).
Theme and Variation
This nice little term is short for, create one melody, then buil off of it. The master at this would have to be Koji Kondo, the musical god that wrote pretty much the entire soundtracks of Mario and Zelda up to the N64, and beyond that continues to write the best of music for these, and other series. Take Super Mario 64’s main theme.
He comes up with that first rhythm and shape, then uses it over and over, then moves on to the next little pattern he likes. Then he does this for Snow Snow Mountain, Dire Dire Docks, Slider, and more with this one melody, all different and the same. It makes the brain think, “yeah, I like this… Ooh, this is different! How different will it be now?” and so on. Once you’ve developed a theme enough (how long is enough? Generally 2 to 4 phrases, but it’s up to you), you generally move on to a new theme and develop that, continuing the pattern ’til you get back to the original, which the listener will be glad to hear.
Finally, we can get to the final argument:
How Necessary Is This?
And unfortunately, I have to say not at all. Plenty of music out there is specifically written with boring run-of-the-mill melodies, that no one ever remembers. And considering that the goal of VGM is to convey a mood, this is totally understandable, if really sad. For example, my favorite song from Sonic 3 & Knuckles is Ice Cap Zone Act 2. The melody that plays after a while is so pretty and I just love it to death. I got a “Time Over” in both acts because of it. But anyways, the melody always plays… and then that’s it. There’s that one melody, hardly a countermelody, and a bassline that had only changed a tiny bit. It’s so amazing, but it doesn’t develop at all, and considering one is supposed to simply whiz through the stage, and almost certainly have at least Super Sonic by then, ignoring the act song altogether, it’s understandable why there’s nothing else. In fact, a lot of Sonic 3 & Knuckles soundtrack’s music tends to simply convey the mood then have a single mildly interesting melody that doesn’t do much. Sonic 2, on the other hand, has a consistent 2-part song to every zone. In aquatic ruin, the song starts out in Dminor with a melody that jumps around a whole lot up and down. The second part contrasts this in (my favorite key) Gminor and by moving around a whole lot less. The piece repeats, and it feels beautiful.
In short, melodies can lead to amazing music that will stick in your mind forever, but in VGM are not 100% necessary, as the mood is the main priority of the song. Compare the very interesting melody of Windy Hill Zone (Sonic Lost World) to the less fun melody of The Shadow Temple (The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time). I feel the mood is better expressed in the latter, but I’ll never get the darned Windy Hill out of my head for the life of me!
- Don’t get too complicated, melodies are best when you can whistle (or hum) to them.
- Use different rhythms. Better yet, use Syncopation!
- Theme and Variation: Don’t write more new, change what you have!
- Don’t worry too much; mood setting first. (Besides, I have the Shadow temple memorized, too. 😉 )
- Write as much as you can. The more you write, the better you get.
Until Next Time,