There are some melodies that just tend to stick in your head immediately after you hear them, while others tend to be forgotten minutes after they enter your ear. But what is it exactly that makes some melodies so much more engaging and memorable? While there are lots of factors, in this article I will have a look at a technique that’s used in both hit songs and all time classics, making them stick to your mind, and making you immediately recognizing them within a second when they are played.
A great way to bring character to your melody is using leap intervals. Using big leaps to begin a melody (fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and octave) is a great way to catch the listener’s interest right away. Such a leap can also clearly define and characterize your track immediately, like the octave interval does in «Somewhere Over The Rainbow», the augmented fourth in the theme song for The Simpsons, the perfect fifth in the Star Wars theme, or the track «Somewhere», also from West Side Story, using a minor seventh in it’s opening line. All these themes are greatly recognized by their use of these intervals in their openings.
However, if you listen to these melodies, you may notice that most of the big leaps are balanced with smaller steps afterwards.
So if your melody goes from E to C (major sixth, like in my little example to the right), it would be a wise choice to balance the large movement with smaller movements afterwards. Again, one example is “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. The big octave interval is followed by many small steps revolving around the octave note. Following a big interval with another big interval might risk ruining the balance and the characteristic element created by the first leap. However, balancing it with smaller steps afterwards will strengthen the emotion and mood made by the first interval.
Balancing big leaps with smaller steps in the opposite direction is a very effective way to make interesting melodies. When choosing an interval for your melody however, there are lots of possibilities. Each interval has it’s own characteristic feel, and will therefore work for different purposes. Which interval you choose for your melody will be crucial for the emotion and character that your melody portrays.
Here is a little table with some of the characteristic emotions of each interval, beginning from the key of C:
This chart might be helpful when picking out the right interval for your melody. The best way to fully understand and feel the effects of the different intervals, is to sit down by an instrument like the piano and just play around with them. Play a minor second (C, then C#), and listen to how it feels. Then play a C and G, and feel how a major fifth feels in comparison.
You can see from the chart that some intervals are associated with happiness, some with sadness and others with longing and strength. Use this to find the right character and interval for your melody, setting the mood immediately for the listener. If you look at the perfect fifth for example, it’s considered very heroic and powerful, making it a great fit for the Star Wars theme.
Try to use intervals to spice up your melodies, make them more memorable, and set the mood and emotion in a very clear and direct way. Trying out different intervals to begin creating melodies can also be a good way to find inspiration whenever you have a hard time coming up with memorable themes. Use the chart as a reference and play around with them – see where it takes you!