Songwriter Theory Podcast
Episode 7

4 Tests to Ensure You Have a Great Melody

Joseph Vadala published on

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Episode Writeup:

Candle Test / Acapella Test

Have you ever seen a crowd pull out their phones and wave them back and forth to a moving song?

The answer to that is probably yes. If it’s no, you probably should get out more. If you’re afraid of mosh pits, I get it. But there are a lot of other seats available. And a lot of other types of concerts to go to.

For this test, we are basically asking, “If I sang this a cappella, would the crowd sing along?”

Maybe it isn’t the kind of song that evokes candles. Is it something the crowd would shout along with? Will they dance and sing along? The point here isn’t necessarily the candles as much as a melody you can envision the crowd recognizing and being like “YES, LET’S SING!”

If you’re performing live and have enough fans at your shows to test this out, go for it. If not, you’ll have to sing it to yourself. And then you have to be honest with yourself.

What we’re really trying to test here is that the melody really sells the emotion of the song.

Theme Test

This is named after themes and motifs in soundtracks.

The Imperial March (aka Darth Vader’s theme) doesn’t need a lyric to tell you what it’s all about. You know evil is marching on and it’s coming for Luke & Friends. Meanwhile, the force theme evokes feelings of mystery, power, and good.

None of these soundtrack themes need lyrics to give you an emotional response. Most of them can do it simply with a basic melody.

We want our melodies to be the same. We can test this by abandoning everything but the melody and putting it to the test. If you play just the melody on the piano, guitar, cello, flute, or even just hum it, does it still evoke the feeling of the song?

If the song is about rising triumphant, does playing the melody line on the piano evoke that same emotion?

This test is great to ensure your melody evokes just the right emotion. Combining this with the Candle Test can be a powerful combination to ensure your melody is absolutely bursting with the right emotion for your song.

Car Duet Test / Conversation Test

Have you ever seen a movie scene where the driver will sing a line from a song and then the passenger pipes in for the next line and it keeps going back and forth?

You always can tell when it will be one person’s line and when it will switch to the next. Why is this? Because of the basic musical concept of call and answer.

Almost every bit of western music is a series of calls and answers.

You see that over and over and over again in western music. So much so that you probably could put every single song you’ve ever heard into two columns of call and answer.

An easy way to test this is visualizing when the driver (call) and passenger (answer) would each sing.

Another effective way to ensure you have a clear call and answer would be creating a document that has “call” on one side and “answer” on the other. From there you just make sure you have a repetition of calls followed by answers.

Elevation Test

Have you ever seen one of these?

They basically show elevation over distance. It shows the highs and lows you reached while on a run or bike ride.

Drawing one for your melodic energy or excitement can also be very helpful.

All you need to do is pull out a pen and paper and sing your melody or listen to a recording of your song.

Then draw a chart, constantly moving right and going up and down with rises and falls in melodic energy.

You could measure by the overall energy of the vocal or of the vocal range.

Either one should give you some information that you’re looking for. You want to know that the energy and excitement of the vocal has some variation. You probably don’t want the whole song to have the same vocal excitement, because then it all just becomes the same.

You don’t feel the highs as much if there aren’t any lows.

I’m not saying that some parts should be boring, just that keeping the same level of energy in the vocal will make it all seem the same. Bringing it down for a pensive sound or rising high to show a flash of emotion helps to move the song forward and keep interest in the vocal. If the whole vocal is high, the high notes become less noteworthy really fast.

Which of these tests did you find most helpful? Let us know!

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