There surely cannot be many people in this world who haven’t, at some point in their lives, stopped in their tracks when listening to a piece of music and thought ‘Hey, that’s really cool. I must hear that again.’
I’m not talking about a riff, a beat or a harmony. I mean a melodic phrase, one that gives you goosebumps.
In case you’re not sure what I’m talking about, here are some examples from my own experience. Most of these are pretty old but you should get the idea, even if you’ve not heard them before. What’s for certain is that your list will be very different.
My Old Man
My Old Man is a Joni Mitchell song from her golden era. Pretty well all of it is fantastic but the piece of melody I’ve selected here is what really grabbed my attention. It’s not hard to see from the notation why it’s unusual – the melody makes both impressive leaps (like the octave interval between the first two notes) and some subtle chromatic runs (like the G, G#, A in bar 2 and the D, D#, E in bar 4).
The Late, Great Johhny Ace
The Late, Great Johnny Ace is from Paul Simon who, like Joni Mitchell, was one of the greatest songwriters of the second half of the 20th century. There are strong similarities with the previous example with the melody taking large leaps then fluctuating delicately. The real magic is the C# in bar 2, followed by the dissonant C above the E major chord in bar 3.
Fix You is, of course, from Coldplay. Why do I like this tune so much? I’m not sure because, at first sight, it does nothing unusual. Perhaps it is just the runs from F down to Bb on ‘guide’ and ‘ignite’. Maybe also the interesting rhythm of these runs with the dotted quavers (1/8 notes). Anyway, it works.
Alfie is a song by Burt Bacharach, a composer with the ability you associate with Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others from the golden age of American songwriting. This song is so clever it defies belief, yet it doesn’t appear that way to the listener – a little strange perhaps but utterly compelling. I could have selected any portion of this song and it would have made the point as well. These opening lines are both rhythmically interesting (take the opening bar) and generate some amazing harmonies with the jazz-style chords.
Waterloo Sunset is by Ray Davies of The Kinks. I couldn’t get enough of this melody when I first heard it. The same pattern of notes repeats three times as it descends an octave from C# to C#. The melody doesn’t leave the E major scale at any point but it does create temporary dissonances with the underlying chords at the start of bars 2, 3 and 4 (a C# over an E chord, a G# over a B chord, and an F# over an A chord – in each case an added 6th).
Each of these examples does something special but there is no one magic ingredient that you can just copy into your own songs. It’s likely that these composers were simply playing around with ideas and struck lucky. But of course, you’re much more likely to get lucky if you put in the hours that these people did to perfect their craft.