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Understanding Vocal Melodies: How to Write Vocal Melodies

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: May 28, 2020 • 2 min read

A songwriter crafts chord progressions, rhythmic hits, instrumental melodies, and lyrics, but their most memorable work might be the song's vocal melody.



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What Is a Vocal Melody?

A vocal melody, or vocal line, is a melodic sequence written for the human voice. In most forms of pop, rock, jazz, hip hop, country, R&B, and opera, the vocal melody is the focal point of the entire musical composition. Many great melodies are divided into multiple vocal parts—either sung in harmony or split between multiple vocalists.

Vocal Melody vs. Instrumental Melody: What’s the Difference?

A pop song's vocal melody and its instrumental melody serve different functions. Traditionally, instrumental lines are subservient to vocal lines. Most songwriters assign primary melodies to vocalists and use instrumental melodies as a counterpoint, providing syncopation and harmony to fill out the song structure. While most songs anchor themselves to a vocal line, some songwriters allow instrumental melodies to cut through and outshine the vocals.

How to Write a Vocal Melody

Writing vocal melodies requires a mixture of creative spontaneity and dedicated discipline. Songwriting is a deeply personal process, and no two songwriters approach writing melodies in quite the same way. That said, there are several reliable songwriting tips and techniques that can help you in your own process.

  1. Follow chords. Start your vocal writing process by improvising on a set of chord changes, and create a new melody from the notes in those chords.
  2. Follow a scale. You can also come up with single-note melodies by mining scales. Major scales and minor scales form the basis of most pop melodies, but if you want to push further, try a dominant scale, an altered scale, or a mode.
  3. Give your melodies a focal point. A focal point is a high note that a melodic line touches once but not again—or at least not in that section of the song. Make sure that the highest note falls within your singer's vocal range. Of, if you want to subvert the form, you can make your focal point the lowest note in your melody.
  4. Write stepwise lines with a few leaps. Most vocal melodies follow stepwise motion; this means that most notes are followed by a note that's only a half-step or whole-step above or below. Great songwriters then mix in leaps (two whole steps or more), which stand out from the stepwise motion.
  5. Go outside to write. Writing away from an instrument is a great way to generate creativity or push past writer's block. Try singing vocal lines into a recorder app on your smartphone. Then, return to your instrument and transcribe what you sang.
  6. Get inspired by your favorite artists. Analyze your favorite songs and try to identify what it is about their melodies that hooks you. Then, borrow some of their techniques, whether that involves certain scales, leaps, or rhythmic patterns.
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