Don’t Lock Yourself In

The vocal melody is one of the TWO most important parts of any song (lyric being the other).  Lyric and melody make a  song.  You’ll rarely hear someone walking down the street humming chord changes, or whistling a guitar riff (unless maybe they’re a musician).  The general population is attracted to the primary vocal melody, and if they don’t like it, then they don’t like your song.  If they can’t remember it, then they won’t sing your song.

Songs can generally be grouped into a couple of categories – songs written around a melody and songs written around chord changes or riffs.  As a music publisher, I’ve seen the majority of songwriters in my genre begin with chord changes rather than with a melody.  In contrast however, most of today’s successful pop writers, start with a melody.  Both processes can work.  However, if the vocal melody is one of the most important parts of your song, be extremely careful not to make it an afterthought.

Building your song around a chord progression can be severely limiting.  Amateur writers often use only the chords they know best … the ones their hands automatically go to when they pick up the guitar or sit at the piano.  They hang out and jam on some chord changes until they get something they really like.  Then they try to impose melody on top of the progression.

We can get very creative with the way we string our favorite chords together, and how long we stay on each chord, leading to hundreds of chord progressions for new songs.  However, laying down the progression first, boxes us in when it comes to creating melody.   It locks us in with regard to both the rhythm and the notes we can use in our melody.  And we may also limit ourselves with the way our phrasing and our pattern of repetition can work.

Try starting with a melody.  Work on building it without your instrument, if necessary.  Develop something enjoyable, beautiful and singable.   Then let the melody determine the rhythm and the mood and the chords that will support it.   This change of process sounds simple enough, but is extremely liberating for most writers.  When there are no more walls, no more limits, no more boxes, they find that their melodies truly begin to soar.  Their songs become more singable, more memorable and more enjoyable.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Foghorn Leghorn was one of my favorite cartoon characters when I was a kid.  I can still hear him repeating himself, “What’s the big… I say, what’s the big idea chasin’ my worm?”.  His stammering is one of the things that made him so memorable.

As it relates to music, repetition is an important tool for establishing motifs and hooks It’s important in all songs, but arguably moreso in songs that are to be sung BY crowds (congregations), than in songs to be sung TO crowds.  Repetition helps make a lyric or melody memorable.  Case in point, when we want to memorize something – a speech, a phone number, etc, – we generally repeat it over and over until we know it “by heart.”

It has been said that memory affects the music-listening experience so profoundly that it would not be hyperbole to say that without memory there would be no music. As dozens of theorists and philosophers have noted…music is based on repetition.  Music works because we remember the tones we have just heard and are relating them to the ones that are just now being played. Those groups of tones (or words) might come up later in the piece in a variation or transposition that tickles our memory system at the same time as it activates our emotional centers…Repetition, when done skillfully by a master composer, is emotionally satisfying to our brains, and makes the listening experience pleasurable.

Repeating The Title – If you incorporate your title in the main hook of your song, it strengthens the identification your song and usually makes for a finer hook. Examples:  Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” (Stewart, Harrell, Nash, Knowles), Deliroius’ “I Could Sing Of Your Love Forever” (Smith).

Repeating The Melody – It may sound obvious, but keep your verse melody the same in every verse.  Also, your chorus melody should not change each time the chorus is repeated.  I actually see this problem a lot with young writers.  Not necessarily that they don’t write the same melody for each verse or each chorus (although I’ve seen that too), but that they don’t sing it the same way each time.  If you’re a worship leader, then stick to the melody when you’re leading.  It’s extremely important.  You’re leading not performing.  And besides, you need to actually sing your hooks for them to do their job.  Even the great mainstream performers understand the power of delivering a song the way people learned it from radio.  If you want to take creative liberties when singing, then do so at the end of your song after the verse or chorus has already been repeated several times and the listener has digested the hook.

Repeat The Important Words or Phrases – Sometimes, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” can be a great hook.  But repetition is a useful device that can drive home the important elements of your lyric.  Don’t waste it.  Remember that the repeated words and phrases are the ones that people will take home with them.  These are the lines they will be singing in their cars and in their showers.  These are the lines that will come to mind when they are on vacation, lying on the beach.  If you’re writing a song of encouragement or a song that builds faith, then repeat the encouraging words you want people to remember during times of need (Great Is Thy Faithfulness).  If you have an important message to deliver in your song, then it’s “worth repeating”.  

Hook Your Listeners


Without a hook, it’s difficult to catch a fish.  And same goes for your song, if you want to snag a fan.  In your song, the hook is the catchy part that sticks in the listener’s head.  It’s what makes someone want to listen to your song over and over … or sing it in the shower.  It’s been called, “the foundation of commercial songwriting, particularly hit-single writing.” *

Although a hook might be melodic, rhythmic or lyrical (even the title of a song can be a hook), the melodic hook is the most common type and is what makes your song instantly hummable or singable.  Whether it’s an instrumental riff, the chorus melody, or something else, it’s the section of your song that people remember most.  Take Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for example, which contains perhaps the most recognizable series of four notes ever put together. That simple “dum-dum-dum dhaaa” is the perfect example of a hook.

It is hard to define exactly what features make a hook appealing to listeners. While some melodic hooks include skips of a third or more to make the line more interesting, a hook can be equally catchy by employing rhythmic syncopation or other devices.  A hook may also grab the attention of listeners from other factors, such as the fuzz tone guitar sound in the opening riff of The Rolling Stones‘ classic song, SATISFACTION.  (Was it the fuzz tone or the notes chosen that made it a hook?  Who knows, but it certainly snagged listeners and made the song immediately recognizable.)  But most often, the melodic hook is found in the chorus of the song.  Nothing beats a catchy chorus, and nothing is worse than a chorus that you can’t remember.

There are thousands of examples of a chorus melody serving as the song’s hook, but one is the song  BE MY BABY, performed by The Ronettes, where the hook consists of the words “be my baby” over the conventional I-vi-IV-V chord progression of the chorus.  A final example of a melodic hook is found in the worship song, HOW HE LOVES written and performed by John Mark McMillan.  In this tune, it’s actually the melodic tag, not the chorus melody, that is the strongest and most singable melodic hook of the song  (When the line, “He Loves Us, Oh How He Loves Us”is repeated several times.)

* Kasha and Hirschhorn (1979), p.28-29. Cited in Gary Burns (January 1987). “A Typology of “Hooks” in Popular Records”. Popular Music 6 (1): 1–20.



Metaphor is one of the figurative language types that we mentioned in our last post.  It’s basically a figure of speech that constructs an analogy between two things or ideas.  Metaphor conveys the analogy by using a metaphorical word in place of some other word. For example: “Her eyes were glistening jewels.”  Metaphors compare things without using “like” or “as.”

In essence, metaphors are comparisons that show how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in one important way. describes metaphor this way:

…a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “A mighty fortress is our God.”

In the example above, God is not literally a large fort or fortified town, but His attributes are like a fortress for us.  In Him, we are protected and supported as if in a fortress.

There are actually three or more metaphoric subtypes, simile (SIM-a-lee), apostrophe (a-POS-tro-fee) and personification.  We can talk about these in future posts.

For now, try using basic metaphor in a song.  Compare things or ideas without using the words “like” and “as”.

I’m sure you’ll find this assignment to be a breeze. 🙂