Tom Petty on Making Friendly Music

Including audio recording of Tom explaining what makes a melody great, never heard until now

When I had the great fortune and joy to work with Tom Petty on a book to focus on his songwriting, we met at his home just about every Saturday for more than a year to talk songs.

In the cozy recording studio of his Malibu home, during the time he was making Highway Companion right here, we’d speak for a couple hours each time. I’d record these on cassette tapes, and as I always ran two just in case one failed, I have a big bounty of tapes of Tom talking.

Anytime I hear his voice, in the same way that I know all his devoted Tom Petty Nation fans feel, I get bittersweet hearing his voice. Because his speaking voice, like his singing voice, is so distinctively Tom. The moment you hear it – that cadence, that slight Southern accent, that gentle, warm spirit – it is undeniably him and nobody else. It’s a friendly voice. It always strikes me how fully his spirit is summoned by the sound of it. There he is.

And though I used this section in the book, tonight I heard it in a different way. As time goes by this happens. It’s an answer he gave to a question I’ve asked a lot of great songwriters, and one which few can answer, as it’s about something which is literally beyond words.

It’s a question about melody. As songs are primarily two elements, language and music, the melody of a song, as well as the lyric, have to both be equally strong. Tom, as the world knows well, was an extremely gifted, instinctual melodist. He simply had a knack for conceiving fresh, compelling melodies through the years. His was a tuneful soul who easily connected through forty-plus years of songwriting with timeless tunes, those melodies which speak to our hearts, and which we carry around with us always.

But what’s the secret to that? Why are some melodies so compelling and infectious, inviting endless repeats over and over without losing their power? When I asked the jazz legend Dave Brubeck this question, he said, “The secret of a melody is secret.”

Which was humorous, though not really informative.

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Tom answered it easily and with his customary succinct simplicity. The man not only was a surpremely gifted melodist, he also was a savvy songwriter who understood that without compelling, memorable melodies, songs do not last. As he says here, “The melody defines the song.”

His answer is below, but you can also hear it on this recording made today in my Angeleno office.

The aspect of his answer which I heard with new ears tonight was when he asked, in regard to a melody being developed, is it friendly? That he would add that character to the answer, that the melody should be friendly, seems so essentially Tom. Because like Woody Guthrie, Tom wrote his songs for the people. They weren’t songs ever intended to antagonize or divide people, but the exact opposite – to bring people together. To let them know a friend is singing to them. That this is a song for everyone. For your kids, your parents, and anyone who likes to hear songs from the heart of a pure soul.

That was part of Tom’s mission, and he did it exceptionally from the start. To give the gift of friendly music to us – all of us – which we can hold onto forever.

You have so many powerful melodies that you’ve written. Any idea what makes a melody work?

TOM PETTY: I think it’s as simple as, can you hum it in your head? Does it do something to you when you hear it? Is it a friendly thing? Do you want to hear it again?

Easily said though not so easily found, sometimes. But a song doesn’t have to have a melody. You can do a song with one note.

I like them to have melodies. Somewhat. Some more than others. I think the melody really defines the song. And the chords you find, and the rhythms you find, they’re really there to support that melody. Though sometimes writing, we might work the exact opposite way. Have a chord progression, and then find a melody.

But they must support the melody. It’s very important.

From Conversations with Tom Petty, Expanded Edition, by Paul Zollo and Tom Petty. Published by Omnibus Books/UK

“The melody defines the song.”
Tom Petty in Hollywood, April 23, 2015. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

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