How to Write a Vocal Melody
Learn how to craft great melodies when you’re writing a song.
Last Updated: December 2023 | 4588 words (23 – 25 minute read)
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In this complete guide, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know to start writing vocal melodies for your songs.
We’ll give you a step-by-step process you can use today. Plus we’ll get into what makes a “good” melody, how to get yourself “unstuck” and some tips on how you can get better at writing vocals.
If you’re a complete beginner to songwriting, be sure to read our complete guide to writing songs first.
Now let’s get right into this deep-dive on how to write a vocal melody.
Article Table of Contents
- 2 How to Write a Vocal Melody in 4 Steps
Audio Version of Article
What Is a Melody?
A melody is a musical phrase that has two main elements to it – pitch and rhythm.
Pitch refers to what note is being sung, while rhythm has to do with how and when that note is sung across time.
It may seem confusing at first, but it may be easier to think about it like this: a vocal melody is someone singing different notes of a musical scale at different lengths in a particular order and pattern.
But it’s not just random – it’s cohesive and pleasant sounding to the ear.
The vocal melody is usually the most memorable and recognizable aspect of a song. It’s often what you sing or hum along to when a great vocal melody is stuck in your head.
Chord Tones vs. Non-Chord Tones
No melody exists in a vacuum. Usually a melody will be related to an underlying chord progression – often written on top of one.
But this isn’t always true. Sometimes the melody comes first, and the chords are placed underneath it.
Either way, the melody itself will contain two kinds of notes:
- Chord tones are notes in the melody that match the notes in the underlying chord.
- Non-chord tones are the exact opposite – notes in the melody that don’t appear in the underlying chord.
How Music Works Refresher
If you’re still unsure about all of this, make sure you read our basic music theory guides to bring you up to speed on notes, scales and chords.
Simply put, a chord is built from several notes within a specific musical scale/key.
When you’re writing a song, the underlying music (i.e. a beat/track or chord progression on a guitar) has harmonic movement to it – it moves from one chord to another to build an emotional feeling (a “vibe”).
That chord progression or beat will be in a specific “key,” which corresponds to a musical scale, which is a collection of notes that sound good together (ex/ the C Minor scale – C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb).
Your vocal melody will almost always be written using the same notes within that scale.
Back to Chord vs. Non-Chord Tones
Now that we’re clear on what we’re talking about, here’s how it works:
If the current underlying chord in the beat/progression is a C Minor7 (C, Eb, G, Bb), then your melody would be using a chord tone if it sung one of those notes.
The vocal melody would be using a non-chord tones, however, if it sung the other notes from that scale (i.e. D, F, Ab).
If the chord being played changes, then so do the chord and non-chord tones.
Instrumental vs. Vocal Melodies
Melodies, in general, work very similarly whether they are for the voice or for another instrument.
Of course, there will be certain differences in how they’re written and developed in the song, but a great melody shares common characteristics.
However, when we’re talking about writing songs with vocals, a vocal melody will almost always be the “main star” of the overall song.
That’s often why it’s called a “topline.”
The singer’s voice should be the focal point of the listener, while all other instruments (including any instruments playing a melodic part) should accompany and serve that vocal melody.
This of course changes if there’s a section of the song that includes an “instrumental solo” (like a guitar solo in the bridge of a rock ballad, for example).
In those cases, the instrumental melody ACTS as the vocal melody (the main point of focus) for that particular section.
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How to Write a Vocal Melody in 4 Steps
Now that we’ve got the fundamentals out of the way, let’s talk about exactly how you can write your own vocal melodies for your song.
There’s no single way to get this done – whatever works, works.
The steps below are just one way to do this (a way that I personally find comes up with the best melodic ideas).
Feel free to make this process your own, or abandon it completely if some other process works better for you.
FIRST: Be OK With Sounding Weird
Before we even get into the steps, there’s one thing you have to be ok with:
Sounding stupid AF.
That’s the price of admission to becoming a great topline melody writer.
Don’t get into your head and just let whatever comes out of your mouth come out and sound however it sounds.
Don’t sweat sounding weird. You will sound weird. A lot of the ideas will sound weird, but there will be some REAL GOLD in between the weirdness.
Step 1 – Brainstorm Using Gibberish
The first step in writing a vocal melody is to just freestyle melodic ideas. These are going to be short little musical phrases you sing with your mouth.
Don’t worry about the “words” of the melody – you want to use nonsense/gibberish word sounds and focus more-so on the notes being sung.
Pretend you’re singing a song but don’t know the words. And you’re just making up sounds that “kind of” sound like words, but have no real meaning.
Your focus here is to just sing ideas as they come to you – no rhyme or reason. Just brainstorm for now.
You want to do 3 separate rounds of this “freestyling.” That way, you’ll have a bunch of ideas to work with.
Chords or Tracks/Beats
You can do step 1 without any musical backing, but that’s going to be more difficult for most people who start out writing songs.
A better approach is to let a beat/track downloaded (or made yourself) play in the background as you freestyle ideas over top of it.
If you know how to play an instrument you could also just create your own chord progression and play it in a loop while you freestyle melody ideas.
Either way, it helps to have that harmonic foundation (i.e. chord movement) laid down before you start writing the actual melody.
Know the Key
It’s usually a good idea to know what key you’re writing in. The chord progression or beat you’re using will be in a specific scale. You should know that scale.
You’re not going to specifically say to yourself “I’m going to sing the notes C, G, and the E in this melody because my song is in C Major.” You’re just going to sing whatever sounds good to you in that moment.
But it’s useful to know the scale/key beforehand, so you have a layout of the landscape.
Record Your Freestyles
This is extremely important – record yourself during your freestyle sessions.
It doesn’t matter if you record yourself on a personal recorder, a home studio setup or even your smartphone.
You just want to record all of your ideas as they come out of your mouth, in the moment.
The brain is great for generating ideas, but not for remembering them. If you think you’ll sing a melody, think it’s great and then remember it for later, you’re wrong.
You’ll most likely forget it (or parts of it) by the time you’re ready to use it.
Don’t worry, no one else has to hear these recordings.
Step 2 – Listen Back and Categorize
Now that you have 3 rounds of melodic ideas recorded, it’s time to listen back to them all.
I know… cringe.
But like I said, be ok with sounding weird. And become ok with feeling embarrassed with yourself. No one else has to be around when you listen to your melodic ideas brainstorm sessions.
So, listen back to all of your recordings a few times and pay attention to each idea you came up with.
Organize Your Best Ideas
While you’re listening, you want to try and categorize each idea into a different song section.
When you’re listening to a song, it has distinct song sections within it – an intro, verses, pre-choruses, choruses, sometimes a bridge, an outro, etc.
And once you listen to a lot of music, you can kind of “just know” that a certain thing sounds like a chorus. Or maybe it sounds like it’d be a verse, or pre-chorus, etc.
So… when you’re listening back to your melodies, try and pick out your favorite ideas and categorize them as “verse,” “pre-chorus,” “chorus,” or “bridge” candidates.
This isn’t set in stone yet, we just want to give an overall shape and structure to our song using our best melody ideas.
Note: You won’t be using ALL of your ideas from the brainstorm, ONLY the absolute best sounding ones.
Step 3 – Structure Your Song’s Shape
This step can be a bit tricky if you don’t have any music production skills.
What we want to do is create an overall shape of our song’s topline melody as if it were a ful song.
If you know how to work with digital audio workstations (DAWs – i.e. studio software), then you can simply drag around your recordings to form the overall shape of your song.
Find that verse melody you liked, and drag it into position at the start of the song. Then find your pre-chorus melody and put it after that. Repeat for each section of the song.
If you can’t work inside a DAW, then you can actually re-record yourself singing each of your now-categorized vocal melody ideas in order.
What you’ll be left with is the entire first-draft melody of the “full song.”
It Doesn’t Take Much
Keep in mind, that quite ofter songs (especially pop songs) have very similar sounding verse sections, and almost identical sounding pre-chorus and chorus sections across the song.
For example, the first pre-chorus doesn’t sound much different melodically from the second pre-chorus. The same goes for verses and choruses. And a bridge usually only happens once within a song.
So when you’re structuring your initial melodies, you can copy paste the same melody idea for each verse, and the same melody idea for each chorus, etc.
Of course, if you want every section to have a distinct melody (i.e. not the same), then go ahead. That’s an artistic choice.
Note: these sections won’t sound EXACTLY the same. There will be some development of the idea, which we’ll discuss in a bit…
Step 4 – Refine, Rewrite, Re-Record
Now that we have an idea of our song as a whole, we need to refine our vocal melodies.
If you think it’s already great in it’s first draft form, you’re wrong. It may be good, but it’s not great.
That’s where the all important rewrite comes in.
We don’t have lyrics yet (and won’t get into lyric writing in this guide), but we can still “rewrite” parts of the melody to make it more effective.
Try out different things here – maybe you end the verse on a higher note than you did in your initial brainstorm. Or maybe you think a particular melodic riff in your pre-chorus should be faster/slower than you sang it originally.
Just try to make each thing a tiny bit better.
This is also the stage where you’ll be developing each melody. In the previous step I said that the melodies across sections are usually the same throughout a song – the verses sound similar, the choruses sound the same, etc.
But that’s not ENTIRELY true. As the song progresses, the melodic ideas should be slightly developed and differentiated.
This can be the step where you do that development of the initial melodic idea – we’ll get more into this below…
But for now.. there you have it – you’ve just written a vocal melody for your song. Congratulations!
What Makes a Great Melody?
So above I described one of the most effective processes for how to write a vocal melody.
Four simple steps, that can actually be really difficult to do well. But over time you will get better and better at writing your song melodies.
You just need to put in the work.
But there’s a lot that goes into crafting a great melody. It can hard to describe, but we’ll try below.
Here are the things you should always be thinking about when you’re writing your melodies, if you want them to really resonate with listeners.
The first thing you need to think about when writing your melodies is “how singable is it” for the average music listener.
The easier it is for someone to sing, the more likely they will sing/hum along, leading to it getting “stuck in their head.”
You can try to achieve this in a couple of ways:
- Keep the overall range of your melody (the range of notes you use) within an octave or 1.5 octaves at the most. That’s the range most people are able to sing.
- Don’t use a lot of huge leaps from note to note. (ex/ melody jumps from a low C note to a C note an octave above)
Distinct and Memorable
The next characteristic of a great melody is it’s memorability.
If a melody gets stuck in your head once you hear it, it’s a pretty damn good melody (even if it’s “annoying”).
It should also be distinct – it should stand on it’s own and be recognizable as that melody.
If you can achieve those two traits, you’ve got a pretty good idea going. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell what that means unless you test it out (or have a ton of writing experience).
This is also where “hookiness” of a melody comes in. A melody is considered “hooky” if it can act like a “hook” that reels the listener in.
It’s so distinct and interesting that the listener’s ears latch onto it. And that often makes it more memorable.
Familiar But Fresh
This is another tough characteristic to wrap your head around. But with more and more experience it will become clearer.
You want your melodies to feel “familiar” to the listener, but also fresh and novel in certain ways.
The familiarity of your melody (it “sounds like something I know, but can’t place”) will make your listener more open to continuing to listen.
But if it’s so familiar that it actually sounds like something they’ve already heard, they’ll tune out.
That’s why it also needs to be fresh and novel – something they haven’t heard done before.
Tricky, right? I know. That’s why this is an art and not a science.
Repetition and Variation
Another fundamental characteristic of great melodies is that they successfully use repetition and variation within them.
If your melody has no repetition it becomes hard for a listener to follow or latch onto.
But if your melody has no variation to the repetition, it becomes boring and harder to keep paying attention.
So you need to balance the two – you should have some repetition of your melodic ideas, but then vary them over time so they stay interesting.
This is where the idea of “motifs” come in.
A musical motif is a recurring theme or pattern that is used throughout a larger melody of musical idea. It serves as a unifying element that helps to establish a connection between the different parts of the song/melody.
You want to come up with motifs that you can re-use and develop throughout the song.
Think if it as “coming back home” when you wander off exploring other ideas.
Melodic Development Across Sections
This is another important aspect of repetition and variation.
Earlier I mentioned that the melodies of your song sections are going to be very similar to each other. The verses will sound similar, the choruses will sound similar, etc.
However, they’re not exactly the same.
You want to develop each melodic idea as the song progresses.
So, for example, you’d sing the melody exactly as is for the first verse. But then when you sing that same melody for the second verse, you alter it slight (i.e. you develop it further).
Maybe in the second verse you decide to end on a different note than the first verse. Or maybe the entire third line of the second verse is sung slightly higher than it was in the first verse.
It doesn’t have to be a drastic change or development, but it should provide the listener with some familiarity and some novelty.
That will keep them most engaged.
Do this for all of the sections throughout your song – including pre-choruses and choruses. Develop these melodies slightly each time they appear to help keep your listener’s attention.
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Finally, a great melody has a great shape to it.
This can be hard to wrap your head around if you’re not too familiar with concepts like a DAW’s MIDI roll.
But essentially, what this means is that the overall shape your melody takes on if you were to chart all the notes visually is important.
You want your overall melodic shape to look like a bunch of rolling hills or a mountain side – it goes up, and comes back down. Then goes back up and comes back down.
It’s got shape to it. And it doesn’t just keep going up, or keep going down. It does both.
It’s very easy to visualize in a DAW piano/MIDI roll if you have access to one. Draw in notes using a scale. If it takes the shape of “rolling hills” it will probably sound decent.
But shape goes beyond this idea of rolling hills, as well. Your melodic shape should also be balanced.
What this means is you want to use a COMBINATION of step-wise motion (going from one note directly to the next note in the scale – ex/ C to C#, or C to D) and intervallic leaps (jumping from one note to another, which is not directly next to it in the scale’s note order – ex/ C to Eb, or F to C#).
You don’t want a lot of leaps all over the place, and you don’t want all step-wise movements either.
You want a thoughtful combination of both.
So, now that you’ve got a good process/workflow for writing a vocal melody, let’s talk about what to do when you inevitably get stuck.
Writer’s block is huge in the songwriting world, and so having some go-to tactics to bust through it is important.
Let’s talk about a couple ways break out of that “stuck” feeling.
Write on a Different Instrument
This is where knowing your scales comes in handy. If you know what scale you’re trying to write a melody in, try writing it on an instrument other than your voice.
Use a guitar or a piano (or anything else) and just start playing around on a scale.
You’re still freestyling melodic ideas. And if you play something you think sounds cool, try mimicking it with your voice using gibberish words.
You never know, it might end up making an amazing vocal melody.
If you don’t know how to play an instrument but have some music production skills, fire up your DAW and just start drawing in midi notes using a scale you want to work in.
Experiment here with random note placement until you get something you think sounds kind of cool.
Then (like above) use your voice to mimic what you wrote down as MIDI. If it sounds good using your voice, it may make a great vocal melody idea.
A plugin or piece of software that randomly generates melodies is another option you have.
But in my experience with these tools – they all suck. I personally don’t use them, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful to some people.
They can randomly generate melodic ideas within a specific scale which you can use as a jumping off point.
But like I said… They all kind of just suck when standing on their own.
There’s nothing quite like the human touch when it comes to creating art.
Reverse the Melody
Another quick trick you can try if you’re having trouble coming up with vocal melodies is to take what you have come up with and reverse the note order.
It might be a long shot, but it might just be an unexpected and pleasant surprise.
Try it out.
Use an Arpeggio
An arpeggio is simply when you go back and forth between the notes of a chord.
So instead of playing the C Major chord as the notes C, E and G together, you would alternate between the notes individually.
An upwards arpeggio would be C->E->G->E->C->E->G->E->C. You’re using all chord tones for the melody, but they can be in any ordered pattern.
It’s an easy way to come up with a melody idea.
Imitate a Favorite Artist
When you’re freestyling your melodic ideas, it can sometimes be helpful to just imitate what you think your favorite artists sing like.
If you love Chris Brown, try to imagine yourself mocking or imitating a Chris Brown song to come up with melodic ideas.
When you listen back you might find some ideas that don’t sound exactly like Chris Brown, but are still great melodies you can use.
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Tips to Writing Better Vocal Melodies
Here are some tips you can keep in mind to help yourself get better at writing melodies for your vocals.
Know Your Vocal Range
This is a huge one – especially if you’re first starting out.
You have a natural vocal range that you can comfortably sing in right now. Sure, you can work to extend the range of notes you’re able to hit well, but that takes work.
Knowing your vocal range will help you make better melodies for your own songs since you’ll know what notes to stay around.
We have a full guide on this in our Singing section. Be sure to check it out if you don’t know what your current range is.
Call and Response, Tension and Release
Great melodies often embody the ideas of call and response (or tension and release).
You can think of it like a question and an answer – one part of the melodic phrase poses a question (the call), and the second part of the melodic idea provides the answer (the response).
Great melodies also build up a certain amount of tension, and then provide a release to the listener.
This often takes the form of using notes outside of the tonic/root note to build the tension up, and then resolving to the tonic/root to provide a sense of relief.
To really understand how to build and release that tension, you need to be familiar with more advanced music theory concepts like what role each note of a scale plays.
The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re writing a vocal melody is that there are no hard-and-fast rules in art.
You can do whatever you damn well please. And if it’s something that resonates with yourself and others when you listen back, then hell, it’s a GOOD melody.
Break the rules. Do the unexpected. Try different things.
So anything we’ve mentioned in this article so far, feel free to break the convention and do the exact opposite (or something in between).
Listen & Internalize
The only way to get better at writing melodies is to listen to a lot of great melodies and then write lots of melodies.
When you listen to your favorite music, pay attention. Don’t listen passively, listen actively. Study the vocal melodies of your favorite songs.
Sing them yourself. Then memorize them – internalize them.
And then go write your own melodies. Lots of them. After a while, you’ll surprise yourself at how much better your melodies become.
Pay Attention to Rhythm
When beginner’s start to write their own vocal melodies they often pay a lot of attention to the notes they’re using in the melody.
They think they need to do something special with their note choices. But they often completely ignore the rhythm of their melodies.
Rhythm is a HUGE part of melody. Pitches (i.e. notes) don’t exist in a vacuum. They are placed in a rhythm. There are different note positions across time and different note lengths than can be sung.
And often a great melody consists of BOTH great note choices and a great rhythm complimenting them.
Experiment with your melody’s rhythm.
Use Short Phrasing and Space
One thing you’ll notice about a lot of popular music when you study it, is that the melodies consist of short phrases and they utilize space (i.e. quiet) very well.
Don’t underestimate the beauty of brevity and space.
I know that’s a lot coming from someone who just wrote a 4000+ word guide on vocal melodies, but trust me.
You don’t want a long, rambling vocal melody that has no rests/space to breathe.
And by using short phrases, you allow your listener to really pick up on each and every melodic idea you have.
Frequently Asked Questions
Vocal melody refers to the range of pitches/notes a singer is singing on top of a musical accompaniment or acapella. It’s not the “words” they are singing, but the musical notes each of those words is sung in.
You can turn a vocal into a melody by extracting the “pitch information” from the recording. You can use software like Melodyne to help with this.
No, a vocal melody is not always necessary in music. There are lots of songs which are purely instrumental. But most popular music features both instrumental musical backing along with a “topline” vocal melody as the featured instrument.
Damn, that was a pretty long guide. I honestly didn’t expect it to turn out this way, but it’s definitely a complete deep-dive into the art of writing a great topline.
It’s not really an overwhelming or difficult thing to do, but it is very hard to do it extremely well. Great melodies are like catching lightning in a bottle.
And the best way to catch lightning in a bottle, is to just keep trying over and over and over again.
If you really want to level up your songwriting skills, I highly recommend you join HitSongsDeconstructed – they’re the best resource on the internet I’ve found on how to write hit songs.
Thanks for reading this comprehensive guide on how to write a vocal melody. I hope you found it helpful.
Now go out there and start writing. That’s the only way to get better.
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