As a teenager, I remember Paul McCartney talking about writing “Yesterday,” the most recorded song of all time. He was initially unsure whether he had conjured it up himself or if he had unintentionally nicked it from another writer because the melody had come to him so easily.
McCartney’s story resonated with my own experience of melody writing.
Today, I describe this to my students as “remembering a tune that has never been written.” It comes from a deep place inside and is accompanied by déjà vu; it’s at once new and familiar. This is my best answer to the inevitable question: How do you know the right notes to choose when writing a song?
It’s a fair question for sure but comes from a place of wanting to intellectually understand what is an instinctual process.
Aurelect vs. Intellect
Intellectually, we can learn hundreds of cool melody devices. I teach many of these in my Melody Masterclasses, like Line+3 or Shape Shifting, because it’s crucial to expand our mental understanding of melody. However, to take melody writing to the next level of composition, we must turn off our intellect and trust what I call the “Aurelect.”
In aurelect moments, we are not thinking intellectually about melody, instead, we are hearing it. We are following where the ear takes us and trusting our instincts.
How do we develop our Aurelect?
Let’s take a cue from Paul McCartney. The Beatles wrote some of the greatest melodies in recorded music. However, do you know they started as a cover band? During their early years, they played eight hours a night in clubs in Hamburg, Germany. To cover that many hours of stage time, they had to memorize a lot of tunes. So, while they played the latest pop songs, they also learned Broadway tunes, Irish pub songs, and any style of music they could get their hands on. I’m certain this is a big reason why their music is so universally accepted around the world. Committing all these songs to memory gave Paul and the Beatles a deep instinctual well to draw from later when writing their own songs.
Improvising is a necessary second step for developing your aurelect. People often go to concerts and marvel at how well-known guitarists or instrumentalists spontaneously improvise long solos. Jam bands can go for hours riffing on chords and melodies. How do they hear all those notes and melodies? They have developed their aurelect to the point that they can let go and trust it. They aren’t thinking about which techniques they should use next. They are in the moment. Writing great melodies comes from this same instinctual place.
In my Advanced Melody Masterclasses, I give my students the assignment of spitballing melodies for fifteen minutes every day. You can do the same. Record a simple chord progression over four bars and loop it. While it is playing in the background, spitball melodies without thinking. Don’t worry about the words you are singing. Don’t fret about which notes you are supposed to be singing. Just spit out the melodies and sing!
Doing this on a regular basis will begin developing your aurelect, so you can trust your ear. Also, you will find that hooky melodies pop out of nowhere. Record what you are doing, and you can use the best bits to develop entire songs. Today, many contemporary artists, from pop’s The Weeknd to country music’s Sam Hunt, use this technique in their creative process.
When creating melodies using aurelect, the idea is to take all the songs you’ve memorized in your life, the intellectual tips and tricks you’ve learned while studying music, and let them stir around in your subconscious. This will naturally manifest at the moment when you are spitballing and creating. On a good day, the melodies will be new, original, and fresh.
Remember, melodies must feel good and always sound natural. To the listener, the phrasing should sound as if created effortlessly. The more you develop your aurelect, the better you will get—and the more your melodies will move the audience.
Until next time—Write on!
Clay Mills is a six-time No.1 hitmaker and multi-Grammy nominated songwriter/producer. His songs have been recorded by major artists in country, pop, rock, dance, bluegrass, and gospel. His voice and songs have found their way into national ad campaigns and movie soundtracks. He co-founded SongTown.com, the world’s leading songwriter education site, and is the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing & The Songwriter’s Guide to Mastering Co-writing. Clay is as passionate about teaching songwriting as he is about his own writing.