When composing a strong lead melody (also known as a ‘hook’), there can be a few music theory elements to take into account. As a songwriter, I am constantly analysing vocal and synth melodies within my tracks to make them concise and most of all, hooky! We’re going to take a look at a recent track of mine called ‘The Good Life’ to breakdown the music theory concepts behind my vocal melody in the chorus. I’ll explain how I came up with the shape of the melody, why I chose the scale that the melody sits within (and the notes used) and how I used the ancient technique of ‘call & response’. First of all, take a quick listen to the chorus – paying attention to the vocal.
Which notes to use?
The song’s key is D# minor – which contains the notes D#, F, F#, G#, A#, B and C#, so we know that for a vocal melody we are limited to using these notes. Throughout the verses the vocal melody sits in that scale and doesn’t deviate from it. However something changes in the chorus…my vocal melody only uses the following five notes D#, F#, G#, A# and C#, these notes make up the D# minor pentatonic scale. A Pentatonic scale is a very common scale that consists of 5 notes (‘Penta’ meaning “5” in Greek) within an octave. To find the minor pentatonic you simply need to remove the 2nd and 6th scale degrees from the minor scale. Because the movement of the chord progression in ‘The Good Life’ is quite fast paced and complex in the chorus, I wanted to counteract that by using a strong, simple melody for the vocal – which is exactly the effect that the minor pentatonic scale gives.
Shaping the melody
The ‘shape’ of a melody is about what direction the notes of the melody melody move in and what the distance there is between the notes (on the piano – not how long is between the notes). For a chorus ‘hook’, the most effective melody lines are those that have interesting movement (shape) using a concise and strong sequence of notes. I wanted to have the movement in my vocal to push the energy up in the chorus (compared to the rest of the song), which can be achieved by make the melody ascending. The chorus vocal melody moves up (ascends) through the scale for phrases 1 and 3 of the chorus vocal, using the notes A#,G#,F# (“le-e-et”) C#,D#, F#, G# (“me find my way”) and the same notes again for the 3rd line “I’m not here to stay”. To bring the energy back down for the verse, the fourth and last vocal line “I’m waiting for that good life” is actually a descending melody using the pentatonic scale again, which finishes off the chorus phrase as a whole, neatly.
Call & Response
For the second and fourth vocal lines in the chorus, the melody varies slightly to contrast with the first and third lines. This technique is called ‘call and response’, which is an ancient African-derived concept in song writing whereby two distinct phrases interact with one another – with the second phrase acting as a ‘response’ to the ‘call’ of the first phrase, like a conversation between two people. Here’s the lyrics from the chorus, the ‘calls’ are lines 1 & 3 and the ‘responses’ are lines 2 & 4.
1. “Let me find my way”
2. “No don’t hold me back I must go, I’m better off alone, I’m better off”
3. I’m not here to stay
4. I’ll cut the ties and lift off, I’m waiting for that good life
To create a contrast between the call and the response, a song will often use either two differently processed vocals or two separate vocalists (one for the call and one for the response). In ‘The Good Life’ you can hear that the ‘calls’ use a heavily layered and effected vocal harmony, while the ‘responses’ aren’t layered and have less effects vocal. The contrast is not just in the processing though, while the calls use an ascending melody, the responses have a non-linear shape.
Over to you..
So you see, there are a few important things to think about when writing strong melodies for your track – it really helps to reference other music to see how they’ve done it and why it works for them too. You’ll probably start to notice more and more call and response techniques as well as pentatonic scales in the music you listen to now, and now you know how it works you apply these concepts when writing hooks / melodies for your own tracks.
For another track breakdown tutorial check out Touch Sensitive’s article breaking down the music theory behind his tune “Pizza Guy”.
Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up with our latest free tutorials, samples, video interviews and more.
Learn more about Music Theory for electronic music.