How To Write Better Melodies (Try These 5 Simple Techniques)

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  • What makes a good melody?
  • What are the key characteristics of a good melody?
  • 5 creative techniques to level up your melody writing

What are those magical ingredients that some composers seem to put in their melodies? Why are these melodies so… good?

The unforgettable introduction. The memorable theme. That harmony so softly subtle, but infinitely expressive. The seamless flow and sense of progression…

Are you capable of writing melodies like those?

The answer is yes!

Understanding how to create better melodies can all feel a bit scary. Luckily, this skill is easy to understand and engage with, and downright fun to practice.

The magic rule: people need something to follow and remember.

Writing melodies has been a key component in film scoring, pop songs, and music theory since the beginning, and it makes sense why.

We’re going to look at 5 of the main techniques that successful composers use when writing melodies, to help us understand how to create better melodies for ourselves.

Understanding this will hugely improve your skills in melody writing for Film & TV, song melodies, and music theory… without having to Major at a music college!

1. Decide On Your Creative Statement

What is your melody going to ‘say’? What does it represent?

You will need a convincing idea behind your melody that you could write down in one sentence, or relate to your friend at the bar without boring them.

Just like the tagline for a TV series or a script pitch, our idea needs to be short & sweet, relevant to the world around us, and pack a punch.

2. Decide On a Main Melodic ‘Gesture’

Once we’ve decided on the main creative statement behind the melody we’re going to write, we need an equally short and punchy musical idea to represent it. I will call this idea a ‘gesture’, because of its interactive features and dynamic qualities.

Good musical gestures are always highly repeatable without becoming annoying, and easy to transmutate into various forms throughout an entire composition. Say we’re depicting the gesture of “stay away from (x), because (x) is highly unpredictable”. We might even be able to hum something right now that represents this gesture.

Maybe even draw your gesture as a sketch. What does it look like? What would it SOUND like? For the above, we could use a soft, low pitch which quickly grows in volume and slides or snaps up to a loud, short (staccato) higher pitch – with the interval between them being something dissonant like a minor 3rd or flat 5th.

Hum it again, then hum it 10 times. If you’re sick of it, start again with a fresh idea. We need something unsettling… something which demands our attention… something which is highly unpredictable.

Is it just me, or are we now beginning to make the music perfectly reflect the topic we’re trying to get across to the listener…?

3. Decide On Your Musical Key

When approaching how to write better melodies, we can use our imagination to pair musical keys with on-screen events in film music or lyrical themes in pop music.

Focus on how the chosen minor or major key evokes a feeling of tension or release.

Musical Keys: Using Major Keys Creatively

Let’s start with an example here: broadly speaking, a melody writing task for the title role of a Mr. Bean film would likely call for use of major keys.

Listeners typically associate a major-key sound with something happy, playful, or silly.

You might be surprised, but particular major keys do sound like they contain more of a particular emotional quality than other major keys.

For example, our Mr. Bean key could definitely be C Major, G Major, or A Major. Our Mr. Bean key typically wouldn’t be D Major, E Major, or B Major – these keys are arguably too evocative and harmonically unstable for comedy.

Why? Read on.

There isn’t much out there to read on the idea of each key having a unique ‘meaning’ or typical dramatic association, but it is a valuable theory worth considering.

Sit down at a piano or online music software if you can. Keep an emotive/descriptive word in mind, like ‘whimsical’ or ‘playful’, and see which major chords seem to fit this word.

Play with the chord – hit it loudly, press it softly, arpeggiate it, let it ring out, play it very short with gaps… all sorts of ideas and answers about the key you’ve chosen will come to you!

Musical Keys: Using Minor Keys Creatively

By contrast, a dark, mystical, or threatening scene from a film series like Harry Potter would suit a minor key more than a major one.

To get even more specific, a key like F# Minor, G# Minor, or B Minor would suit this kind of scene well.

Why? Because the scales that these keys contain are harmonically remote and distant from the most familiar key to the western ear: C Major.

C Major, containing all the white notes on a piano, is hugely fundamental to learning and playing orchestral instruments, composing music, and understanding music theory.

It only contains ‘natural’ notes in its scale (no written sharp or flat notes).

Meanwhile, our chosen key for Harry Potter – F# Minor, G# Minor, or B Minor – shares very few notes with the happy, stable C Major that we all know.

Just by picking a ‘distant’ key, we can cause our melody to sound unstable.

If this sound nicely suits the scene or setting of what we are working on – dark and mystical altogether.

Musical Keys: Theory of Chord Identity

For both practical and creative reasons, one could easily consider a large component of dramatic tension in music as the number of pitches that the chosen key and its scale share with a C Major tonality.

In short: the more pitches our key shares with C Major, the more stable the sound will be; the fewer pitches shared, the more unstable the sound will be.

The results then differ depending on whether we picked a minor or major key to write film/song melodies in.

Major keys which are ‘remote’ to the C Major scale can often sound magical and otherworldly. Check out the example below:

On the other hand, minor ‘remote’ keys tend to sound dark, sad, or threatening. Take a listen to it in the context of this composition by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Major keys which are ‘nearby’ to the C Major scale can often sound happy, playful, or silly, while minor ‘nearby’ keys tend to sound solemn, serious, or imposing.

4. Decide On Your Musical Scale

Successful modern composers like Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams, and John Williams are all aware of the main musical scales; what they’re called, their shapes, and how to use them.

The scale of the melody is picked depending on the key, which is picked based on the emotional mood of the film scene – or in pop music’s sake, the album/lyrics – they are working on (see point 3., above).

Once we’ve picked a musical key that we think successfully represents the mood of what we’re working on and will support the musical gesture we’ve come up with, we then need to choose the behavior of our melody.

This is where our musical scales come in.

Notes of our Mr. Bean major scale (see point 3., above) can be altered into a different scale to make things sound a bit haphazard and unstable – but not threatening.

A solid tip on how to create better melodies for comedic or whimsical moments is raising the 4th degree of the scale up by a semitone, creating a ‘sharp fourth’ in the scale (known as the Lydian mode).

If we want to make that Lydian mode sound even more unstable and potentially a bit cartoonish or slapstick, we can bring the 7th degree of the scale down by a semitone, creating a ‘flat seventh’ in the scale (our sound then becomes the mode known as Lydian Dominant).

This is a very unstable-sounding mode – often used in comedy – and a great sound to write upbeat, wonky melodies in.

5. Combine The Above To Create a Structured Melody

We have our statement, our melodic gesture, our key, and our scale. Now for some quick-fire tips to try out when bringing it all together.

  • Introduce the melodic gesture in a way that reflects your underlying statement. If it’s ‘stay away because (x) is unpredictable’, we can be somewhat unpredictable in how we introduce and develop the gesture.
  • Make repetition your friend. Try repeating and varying your short main gesture for 4 bars – maybe identically repeated once, then repeated on different intervals of the scale you’ve chosen.
  • Make transformation your friend. Maybe after that, the rhythm of the notes or interval between them can increase or decrease. Try gently adding/accumulating different types of transformation over time.
  • Where is this gestural pattern going to go? Decide whether to ascend or descend, and make this last a whole phrase (2 or 4 bars).
  • Consider articulation. If our primary gesture is short and staccato, is there a long note needed, or vice versa if our gesture is long and legato?
  • Hit as many chord tones on the strong beats as you can. This helps ‘color’ the melody and evoke the mood you’re after by bringing out the best of your chosen musical key.
  • Focus on progression. When will things change – has the melody ascended or descended to a point where the chord – or even the entire key – can switch to something different for a bit?
  • Pay attention to tension and release. Always make sure you’ve established a small sense of comfort BEFORE you break it – with a slightly bigger sense of tension. That way, the piece seems always to be moving forward.
  • Think outside the box. You don’t always need to use traditional melodies to convey your statement through music! Sometimes, using unique-sounding effects and plug-ins (composing through sound design) or using unconventional styles of playing (extended techniques) can give you brilliant worlds to play with.


So, that covers an extensive range of ideas and techniques you can use to understand how to write better melodies and level up the way you approach them.

Keep watching and listening to great movie scores and popular musical artists. Examine how they interact with the above ideas.

As far as your craft goes, keep an eye on generating short, punchy, topical statements that you’d like to reflect through your musical melody.

Find creative ways to express these topical statements through pitches and ‘sonic symbolism‘. Keep comparing the ‘meaning’ of musical keys and examining the dramatic qualities of different scale types.

But most importantly – keep practicing and having fun!