Why Melody is the Boss

By ML Wolf

A good songwriter will take into account three of the elements of music; melody, harmony and rhythm. (There are also form, tempo and dynamics which we are not discussing in much detail here). Which of these is more important: melody, harmony or rhythm? There are arguably good cases for any of the three. They are all important, and should be considered when you are writing a song. It is hard to remove any one of these elements and have what is remaining still sound like “music”. My inclination is that melody dictates what your harmony and rhythm are going to be doing. I like to say that melody is the boss.

To start with, take a listen to Sara Simms’ “Fading” ft. DESIIRE. This song was composed using Odesi. You can clearly hear the rhythm of the beats along with a little counter melody for the first few bars before the song begins. At bar sixteen when the singer comes in you can hear harmony supporting his melody. But try to imagine the song without the melody, is what you have left even a song? You decide.

In order to come to your own conclusion we must first understand what each of these elements is, and the role that each plays in a musical composition. Without getting too deeply into musical theory at this time, we can take a brief look at what each one is, and which one is going to be the boss.

What is Melody?

Back in the 1700’s Mr. Johann Philipp Kirnberger had something to say about this.

The true goal of music—its proper enterprise—is melody. All the parts of harmony have as their ultimate purpose only beautiful melody. Therefore, the question of which is the more significant, melody or harmony, is futile. Beyond doubt, the means is subordinate to the end.

Simplified, melody is the tune. It’s what you usually remember and can sing after hearing a musical piece. It’s only one single line of notes ( as opposed to chords) that move horizontally along the page. Often it is the melody that you will focus on first when you hear a song; it’s what actually makes a tune humable. Both vocal and instrumental pieces will have melodies. In jazz pieces the melody is what recurs and gets improvised upon. A great melody will get people’s blood flowing! A melody can exist on it’s own without needing harmony at all, although the melody will give a skeletal outline of what the harmony ought to be.

Being a great Beatles fan, I must include here one of Paul McCartney’s best melodies, “Eleanor Rigby”. Really it’s quite a simple song, with relatively few chords leaving us to enjoy the truly great melody.

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What is Harmony?

Harmony is what goes along with the melody to make it sound more interesting. It supports the melody by providing a vertical framework. Pop and rock music use a series of 12 notes; A, B ,C, D, E, F, G plus added sharps and flats which when added to the melody make up chords. The chord progressions that result help to define the form of the song. If you look at a song that has guitar chords written in on top of the melody, those chords are what make up the harmony for the song.

Harmonies that are used in the song are usually dictated by the melody. They have to fit in with what the melody is doing at any given time. In pop music these are often repeated throughout the song. Harmony rarely stands alone as it relies on the melody to give it direction.

Here is Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita” with the lyrics and guitar chords. The guitar chords are what would be known as the harmony in the song.

What is Rhythm?

When we talk about rhythm, we want to make sure that we distinguish between rhythm and beat. We can instantly feel the beat of a piece; that’s the steady pulse of the music. Almost anyone can tap their foot along to the beat of a song, it’s a very natural thing to do.

Rhythm is the actual time value of the notes. It doesn’t add to the song in terms of pitches, rather rhythm dictates the duration of each note. How fast or slow each note is going to be played or sung is a component of rhythm. Rhythm can exist without a melody however it becomes much more exciting when you hear that tune on top of the beats.

Here’s a sample of a drum beat, it’s good, but pretty sparse without a melody riding on top of it!

Drum Loop

In this next example we have a Northern Arapaho Pow Wow song, you can clearly hear the drum beat, and then the singers over top of the drum. Notice that there is no harmony here, only a steady beat and the melody.

Why is it then that melody is so important? Why is melody the boss? The answer is very simple: melody in itself will contain all of the other aspects of music. It will have various pitches, rhythms, implied harmonies, tempo and dynamics. All of it is there! When you hear someone whistling or humming a tune what is it exactly that they are remembering? Probably not the chord progressions or the bass line. Most likely it is the melody of the song. Not the rhythm. Not the harmony. Rhythm by itself does not usually imply either melody or harmony. Harmony may suggest melody, but probably not a very great one. A melody is completely able to stand on its own. This is why melody is the boss and you must write a memorable one!

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