Songwriter U: On the Mystery and Majesty of Melody

Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Burt Bacharach, Dave Brubeck and Others on the Pursuit, Discovery, Usage and Power of Melody in Song

“It is the melody which is the charm of music, and it is that which is most difficult to produce. The invention of a fine melody is a work of genius.” — Joseph Haydn     

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“There’s a melody in everything. And once you find the melody, then you connect immediately with the heart.” – Carlos Santana

Melody. As songwriters and most humans know, it’s a timeless, mysterious force, capable of reaching the human heart and more. Yet it remains a mystery in many ways, in terms of how melodies impact us, as well as the methods by which songwriters invent and/or discover melodies. This is part one of an exploration of that mystery.

“The secret of a great melody,” Dave Brubeck said, “is a secret.”

It’s an answer that, while funny, is not that informative. Yet reflects the essence of this issue: The power of melody, while undeniable, is something beyond words, literally. So when the question is posed to many songwriters about the secret of melody – why certain tunes have a timeless and almost universal appeal – they have no real answer. Others, though, have ways of talking about it, and discussing the many avenues songwriters travel to discover melodies.

It starts with an understanding that, although great melodies seem to have always existed, they were created by a songwriter. Harry Connick said that when listening to a Cole Porter song with his father, he’d remark on the songwriter’s brilliance in composing that melody.

His father would remark by saying, “But it’s beautiful.” As if to say, the tune is so perfect, how hard was that to write? What else would you write? Harry would say, “Yeah, it’s beautiful because it exists and you know it as that. But he had to choose to do that.”

But how do songwriters make that choice, and why?

Although mankind has made miraculous leaps in understanding the natural world, our understanding of how the brain perceives and maintains music is mostly a mystery. “Ear-worms,” from the German ohrwurm,  those tunes that play in your head seemingly on their own, are entirely a mystery to scientists, who are just beginning to scratch the surface of this puzzle. This phenomenon – also called “headsong” and “humsickness” — has been an integral part of human experience since the dawn of man, yet to us in the 21st century we live with it every day, like primitive man’s acceptance of the sun, with no real understanding of how it works.

So for those of us who spend our time writing songs, discovering and inventing melodies to merge with language, accept that we’re often reaching for something beyond our reach when composing melodies, being “married to a mystery,” as Leonard Cohen put it. How to best do that is something I’ve explored with many of our greatest songwriters, not one of which can offer an easy answer, because there are no easy answers.

Songwriters understand melody is a mysterious force here. Because the power of melody – merged with words especially – is well-known. The power of melody to transport, and to evoke emotions, and conjure up other times. It is strong stuff. Yet humans know more about sending a man all the way to Mars and back than they know about how melodies affect us, and how the mind perceives and stores them.

Brian Wilson smiled that sly Brian smile when I asked him what makes a melody strong, because he loves unanswerable questions about music,  he loves the vastness of this mystery; it’s where he lives. 

“There’s no way you can tell what makes a melody good,” he said. “Every song is different. There are thousands and thousands of songs that have good melodies. The only way to know if a melody is good is to actually play it for somebody.”

A songwriter’s mission is finding a melody that sounds new, but not so unexpected that it has no appeal, and not so obvious it sounds contrived. As the late Sydney Lumet said about movies, “Inevitability does not equal predictability.” 

So songwriters necessarily swim into unknown musical waters, never sure where we might end up. Even the most schooled musicians among us often discover melody blindly, consciously venturing into places they’ve never gone before.

But for instrumental geniuses such as Herbie Hancock, who knows the piano more intricately and intimately than almost all other humans, would there were still unexplored musical terrain to explore?

“Oh, yes, absolutely,” he said.  “It’s endless.”

I mentioned Herbie’s answer to Paul Simon, and asked if it was the same for him.

He laughed, and said, “Oh yes, it’s endless,” he said. “If it’s endless for Herbie, you could be sure it’s endless for me!”

Simon said that to find melodies for album,  So Beautiful or So What, it was “fingers on the guitar,” simply experimenting with different chord fragments and voicings which led to new tunes. Which was his method from the start, and how he discovered the melody to the song most consider his greatest melodic triumph, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” He was playing his guitar, and experimenting with different chord progressions, when suddenly the words with melody of the phrase all came at once: “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.”

Simon said, “I didn’t know where that came from. But I thought, wow, that is better than anything I have written before.”

It was, as he said about the process that led him to many of his classic songs, not invention, but discovery. As with other aspects of songwriting, a melody is not calculated for effect. It is discovered.

And generally, it’s a discovery that is rooted in the finding and fashioning of chord patterns.  Though there are some songwriters who felt a pursuit of pure melody, apart from an instrument, was the way to go.

The late Jay Livingston, melodist of “Silver Bells” and “Que Sera,” preferred to write tunes in his  head – away from the piano, so as not to be too restricted by the limit of chords they play. He said he did both, but felt great melodies should stand – and soar – all on their own, without the chords. So that if one can discover one apart from the piano, or any instrument, it was assured it had power.

Harold Arlen, who wrote “Over The Rainbow” and other landmarks of melody, would also pursue melodies apart from the piano, and sometimes far apart. The tune to “Rainbow,” he said, came to him while driving through Beverly Hills. The chords came after getting home and back to the piano.

Burt Bacharach also said he preferred to write a single melody line, apart from chords.

“I’ve got to get away from the keyboard to hear what I’ve got,” he said, “I’ve always done that – get off the piano to the chair and just listen in my head to what’s going on. You’ve got to get the horizontal look.”

But most songwriters compose melodies by singing  along with chords, with on guitar or piano.  Jimmy Webb did write all of “Didn’t We” in a car en route to Newport Beach, sans piano, generally he said, he’s at the keys.

“Even if chords are simple,” he explained, “they should rub. They should have dissonances in them. I’ve always used a lot of alternate bass lines, suspensions, widely spaced voicings. Different textures to get very warm chords. Sometimes you’re setting up strange chords by placing a chord in front of it that’s going to set it off like a diamond in a gold band. It’s not just finding interesting chords, it’s how you sequence them, like stringing together pearls on a string.”

Mose Allison, another legendary piano-based songwriter, also seasons his chords with dissonant voicings.

“You get some dissonance in a chord,” he said, “either in the middle or the bottom of the chord. By using the same voicing on the right hand and varying the tonic,  you give it different colorations. The chords, you can suspend them and leave them unresolved. For example, you have F in the bass and then in your right hand,  a G, A flat and C . That’s one of the manifestations of the chord. Then you can put different tonics with it and get different effects. Hey, I’m giving away my secrets here!”

The art of creating compelling melody in song, has to do with that essence of modern songwriting – a mastery of simplicity. Which is not to say melodies should be simple, but should shine with a simplicity that allows it to be heard. As Tom Petty said, “Sometimes it’s as simple as – can you hum it?” Which is one of those foundational bits of songwriting wisdom that seems perhaps obvious. Yet as songwriters know, one can be so entranced by a chord progression or groove in a song, while the melody stays mostly on one note.

Any quick analysis of a Beatles tune or a Cole Porter tune will reveal often simple but  unexpected chords, chords that chromatically shift between keys, or between major and minor. In Lennon’s “Come Together,” for example, in D minor, the chorus shifts to  B minor on the title before going back to D minor. (Which is the VI of D major, not D minor – but so works).  And even in early Beatles tunes such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which is in C major,  the bridge goes to a Gm – the minor V – which lifts the song into a wholly new realm before delivering it back to tonic.

Discovering such chordal turns, unexpected but delightful harmonic shifts,  is often an ideal springboard for good tunes. Much was made of the fact that Lennon & McCartney did not read music. They did read chords, though, of course – and both were quite proud of weaving in unusual chords into their songs, like going to the minor V, something they did in other songs.

“Interesting chords will compel interesting melodies,” said Webb. “It’s very hard to write a boring melody to an interesting chord sequence.” 

True, but is it a great melody? Interesting chords alone do not always lead to a compelling and memorable melody. But they don’t hurt!

All of which only scratches the surface of this thing called melody. It is also an element designed to be heard repeatedly, for lifetimes even, without losing its essential power. Which means that although we hear melodies in real-time that begin and end, in our hearts and minds they are endless. Their power goes on forever. Mastering that force is something songwriters and composers aspire to do every day, as they have for centuries.

As Igor Stravinsky said, “The principle of the endless melody is the perpetual becoming of a music that never had any reason for starting, any more than it has any reason for ending.”      


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