The Forgotten Step In Teaching Students to Write Good Melodies

The forgotten step in teaching students to write good melodies |

Today’s post which describes the step we often overlook in when teaching to how to write good melodies, is written by a teacher I had the privilege of meeting at the OMTA conference this June. Doug Hanvey teaches piano in Portland, Oregon and authors the Piano Lab Blog which features fresh ideas, tips and inspiration for piano teachers.

Doug Hanvey

by Doug Hanvey

One of the most exciting things for a beginning composer is learning how to write a good melody. After all, when the average Jane or Joe sings in the shower, what do they sing? Harmonies? No…melodies! Learning the fundamentals of melody writing is an exciting and motivating way to introduce students to composition.

Teachers often overlook the inspiration and guidance that listening to and analyzing great melodies offers to composition students. The steps I use to teach the art of melody writing are Listen, Analyze, Write. The most often forgotten step is analyze!

Listen – to write good melodies

Listening to good melodies with a student and discussing them is a good way to start. It also provides an opportunity to get your students listening to music they might not know about. It’s sad but true that – at least in my not-so-humble opinion – so much of today’s popular music provides more examples of bad melodies than good ones. While I typically involve students in choosing great melodies to listen to, I will also steer them towards what I consider to be outstanding examples. For me, the test is time. How many of today’s top 40 melodies will be remembered in 20 years? Go back a few decades or more, and we have the timeless melodies of Schubert, Gilbert & Sullivan, Gershwin, and Lennon & McCartney (among many others) to explore.

After agreeing upon a song that both you and your student feel has a memorable or catchy melody, you can begin to talk about it. This can organically lead to the process of analyzing it to discover what makes it work. Let’s explore how to do this using the classic melody America the Beautiful.

Write Good Melody |

Analyze – to write good melodies

Naturally you’ll need to tailor the analysis of a classic melody to the age of your student. With young piano students, it may just be a matter of introducing them to a simple concept such as melodic rhythm (see below). Teens and adult piano students may want to more deeply understand what makes some melodies so timeless and others instantly forgettable.

With that in mind, here are a number of characteristics of melody that you can use for analysis:

Melodic Rhythm

It’s often the rhythm as much as the pitches of a melody that “catches” our ears. In fact, it’s often mainly the rhythm that makes a melody catchy and/or memorable. (You can demonstrate this by singing a rhythm without the pitches, and then the pitches in a straight (e.g. quarter note) rhythm.)

Some of the greatest melodies are what could be called “rhythmically intensified speech.”

While “America the Beautiful” has a distinct rhythmically-oriented motif (see below), the overall melodic rhythm is rather prosaic and in my opinion not a significant factor in the song’s staying power.


Many melodies make use of one or more motifs, or motives. A motif is a brief musical idea or succession of notes that establishes a distinct musical idea. Motifs produce unity within a longer melodic structure.

Write Good Melody |


Sequences are used in many timeless melodies, though perhaps less often in song (particularly popular song) than in instrumental music. A sequence is a way of elaborating a melody by restating a motif or longer melodic passage at a higher or lower pitch.

The melody of America the Beautiful does not make use of sequences.

Phrases and Number of Phrases

Nearly all melodies consist of shorter phrases. A phrase is analogous to a sentence in speech. Since a song is sung, phrases are important in giving the singer a chance to breathe.

Most songs have an even number of phrases in each section. For some reason we expect this, and it often makes the song easier to appreciate and enjoy. However, there are some very interesting songs with an odd number of phrases!

America the Beautiful has an even number of phrases (four), each one four measures long (see score at top).

Question and Answer

The rise and fall of normal speech – for instance, in asking a question, is often reflected in melody. Many melodies sound like a posed question with an immediate answer. This is subtle but discoverable in many melodies.

A case can be made that the first half of every one of the four phrases in America the Beautiful (e.g. bars 1-2 and 5-6) is a “question” followed by an “answer” (e.g. bars 3-4 and 7-8). Further evidence comes from the fact that each “question” has the same rhythm which is different from the rhythm of each “answer.”


The contour of a melody often produces a sense of tension and release. Many timeless melodies have an arching contour (often in conjunction with tension produced harmonically, rhythmically or lyrically) that rises until near the end of a song before falling off to produce a resolution. There are often contours within contours. A common feature of many beautiful melodies is an interesting, often rolling, contour.

The contour of America the Beautiful builds tension by gradually rising from the beginning of the song to the high F# in bar 9, whereupon it gradually falls to a satisfying resolution.

Write – the final step

The final step in the Listen, Analyze, Write approach is to have students take what they have learned from a given song(s) and apply it to their own melodies. If they don’t know where to begin, give them a limited palette of techniques and materials. This might include selecting a specific scale, range (tessitura), starting and ending notes, number of bars, and one or more specific techniques to use, such as first writing a melodic rhythm and then adding pitches, writing a melody with a rolling contour, or writing a “question and answer” melody.

Why Teach How To Write Good Melodies Through Song?

And finally, you might wonder why even though great melodies are found in symphonies, sonatas and soundtracks, I prefer to approach melody writing through song. Here’s the reason:

Songs are everywhere – they are not only the popular music of today but in cultures the world over have been the music of the people throughout recorded history.

Being sung, songs require a necessary connection to the voice, and thereby the ear, which is so important for beginning composers to develop.

Working with song also provides potential musical inspiration via lyrics or poetry.

Last but not least, songs are short compared to most other musical forms. When inspiration strikes, it’s possible to knock off a song in 20 minutes.

Genius and terribly hard work may be required to write the greatest melodies, but the fundamentals are within the reach of just about anyone.

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Doug Hanvey

Doug Hanvey

Doug has composed hundreds of songs and piano pieces and the score of a full-length musical. He gives piano lessons in Portland, Oregon.