A Good Melody Needs Volume and Variety

Idea: A good melody needs three pairs of properties. The third is volume and variety.

Last time, we talked about how good melodies need to be structured like a plot. I was trying to explain the “structure” part of the “structure and surprise” property pair that all good melodies need. Now for the final pair: volume and variety.

A good melody needs volume, not in the sense of loudness, but in the sense of expansiveness. It needs to extend both vertically and horizontally.

The vertical extent of a melody — often called its range — is the difference between its lowest and highest notes. A melody without much range is not going to be very good. If you want a melody with a large range, try the US national anthem.

I’ve read people complaining that the Star-Spangled Banner’s range is too large to be easily singable. And that’s a potential problem. After all, a good song must be singable. So, a good melody’s vertical volume will be within normal human capabilities. Except when it isn’t. The following song, after all, has one of the greatest melodies of all time, and it is impossible for most mortals to sing.

Notice furthermore that “Take on Me”‘s melody has volume in the horizontal direction too. It isn’t just a brief series of notes. It has extent, in addition to range.

Drake’s melodies fail on both counts.

The problem with Drake’s melodies is that they are very coherent — as required by the first pair of properties that a good melody must have — but only in little, repeated chunks. They take up no space in either the vertical or horizontal directions.

When you combine vertical and horizontal volume with the “surprise” property from two posts ago, you end up with the final property of a good melody: variety. A good melody doesn’t just take up vertical and horizontal space. It does so in an interesting way. It doesn’t just do the same thing over and over. It does something different, while remaining itself.

As an example of a melody that brings all of the properties we’ve been discussing together, let us conclude with one of the greatest melodies ever.

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Featured image by fxxu.

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