How to Write a Melody in Your DAW

What makes a great track stand out? Well, it’s a combination of many different elements, but one of the most important is the melody. Why? Because this is what people remember, hum, or sing.

It doesn’t matter whether there is a vocal or not….a decent melody will bring your song to life. In this post we'll look at what makes a good melody, and how to write one in your DAW...

So, what is a melody?

Well, according to Dictionary.com, a melody is defined as “A rhythmical succession of single tones producing a distinct musical phrase or idea”. So, not chords, and not (usually) a bassline. A melody can be either sung, played by an instrument or both, and you can have several melodies in one song (e.g. one for the verse, a different one for the chorus, etc.). In the song “Closer ft. Halsey” by The Chainsmokers, they use a vocal melody (00:50) followed by an instrumental melody (01:10):

There are many different types of melody, but as this blog is all about producing dance music, we’ll only look at the two types we’ll most likely want to use for EDM:

1. Motif (this is the type used in “Closer”, and the most common type of melody. I’ll go through the creation of a motif melody in the video at the end of this post).

2. Arpeggio
An arpeggio is when the notes of a chord are played in a sequence instead of together. Here is an example of an arpeggio melody:

From listening to both of those examples, you’ll notice there are two important elements that constitute a melody:

1. Rhythm (the pattern in which the notes are played)
2. Pitch (the different pitches of each of those notes)

We’ll go through a step-by-step creation of a melody from scratch in the video at the end of this post, but before we do that, here are a few tips for coming up with your own ideas and practising the art of melody-writing:


Tips on Melody Writing:

1. Learn (at least the basics) of an instrument.
You absolutely DO NOT NEED to be able to play a musical instrument to write dance music, but if you have a few basic piano (or guitar skills) it can make things quicker and easier than doing it all with a mouse in your DAW.

2. Play along with songs you enjoy.
Load up a track you like into your DAW, and loop a section that doesn’t have a melody playing. Then, experiment with either playing, humming or singing melodies that work with that track. This is really to get your creative juices flowing.

3. Chords / bass first.
If you write your bassline and / or chord structure first, creating a melody is much simpler as you already have a chosen key. This means you’ll know which notes you can use, and base it around your existing rhythm.

4. Get out of the box.
It can be quite intimidating for even the most seasoned of producers to sit there staring at a blank clip in a DAW - and not great for being in the free-flow state of mind needed for being creative. Also, the number of distractions and options in a DAW can be distracting. If you have a MIDI keyboard (which I recommend - even a small, basic one), load up a simple piano sound and turn off your screen to avoid distraction.

5. Sing or hum.
If you’re anything like me, a melody is more likely to bounce around your head than spontaneously flow from your fingertips into a MIDI keyboard. I recommend looping your backing track (chords, drums, whatever you have already written) and sing or hum some ideas along with it until one sounds good. Remembering (or recording) what you’ve sung (you might sing it a few times just to refine it and get it into your head), stop the music, and draw it into the piano roll. It can take a while to work out which notes need to be drawn where, but once it’s in the computer you can listen to it over and over, refining the melody (and even working out harmonies).

6. Record everything.
It’s so easy to record everything nowadays (whether MIDI notes whilst jamming on the keyboard, or singing/humming into a microphone or smartphone), that it’s crazy not to. If you’re looping your track and experimenting with melody ideas, the chances are you’ll come up with something great and forget it, or come up with two or three ideas that would work well combined. Recording all your experiments ensures you’ll never lose any gold, and you can always delete the bad stuff later.

7. Start simple.
Just use a basic MIDI piano sound or basic synth wave to write your melody. This is to take sound design and mixing out of the equation, and focus purely on the musicality. If your melody sounds good even with a crappy sound, you’re onto a winner and can then choose a better sound later on. Starting with an amazing, layered synth with loads of effects can sound great, but can also kid you into thinking a not-so-strong melody is better than it is.

8. Take a break.
This is a general rule of thumb for any creative endeavour. If you’re not coming up with anything you like, just leave it and approach it with fresh ears later on.

9. Keep a voice recorder close to hand.
I recommend keeping your smartphone next to your bed, and having the voice recorder app on the front screen. You know that time just before you fall asleep when amazing ideas just seem to pop into your head? Hum them into your voice recorder (quietly if there’s someone else in the bed!), as you won’t remember them in the morning. Trust me. The same goes for if you’re waiting at the bus stop or walking to work; you won’t remember the tune later, so risk looking a bit daft and just get it recorded. You can then draw it into your DAW later on.

10. Go with your gut.
As Axwell says, “Trust the goosebumps”. If you’re not feeling an idea, the chances are no-one else will either. Keep it for reference, but move on and create more ideas until one excites you…

11. Beer zone.
This is to be used responsibility, of course, but having a beer or two to loosen up and “get out of your head” will allow ideas to flow more freely.

OK, so those are my top tips for writing melodies. Now, to get stuck in and actually write one from scratch in a DAW (a video walk-through is below the bullet-points):


How to write a melody (from scratch) in your DAW:

1. Choose a key.
Choose a key to write your melody in. If you’ve already got a bassline or chords written in a particular key - great! For more info on keys and scales, check out this post.

2. Tap out the melody's rhythm.
Remember the two main elements of melody: rhythm and pitch? First, we’ll deal with rhythm: Tap (or draw) out a rhythm for your melody in your piano-roll editor. You have your click track (or drum beat if you’ve already got one programmed in), so loop it and just tap out a rhythm that you feel works well with your existing elements. You might try following your drum beat or bassline for part of the melody for extra power (like in this example):

...or make it dance in between the existing beats / bass notes for more complexity (like this example):

...or use syncopation for less rigid ideas (like this):

3. Make it easier for yourself.
Now for the pitch part: If you use Ableton Live, draw in every note of the key in which you’re working, and move them to just before the start of your clip (so you can never hear them being played). Now when you press the “fold” button, you’ll only have the notes of that key displayed. If you are using a DAW that doesn’t have the fold function, you can still draw the key’s notes in and use them as a reference.

4. Choose your pitches.
Now, move the notes of your melody rhythm to different pitches in your chosen key. Loop it and tweak until you’re happy with how it sounds.

5. Add the spice.
Once you’re happy with your basic melody, you can start adding a bit more character (this section is split into different techniques. You can try using one, all or none of them!):

a) One way is to use “call and response”. This is where one instrument “calls” something, and another “responds” (here is an example - the big synth calls, and the piano responds):

To do this, simply split the melody across two different instruments, and have them alternate, to simulate them “speaking” to each other.

b) End-of-phrase switch-up. This is where the first 3 bars of a melody might follow a similar pattern, but you might add a flourish to the 4th bar to let the listener know that a particular phrase is coming to an end, or the next part of the track is coming (here is an example -notice how the melody being sung changes at 1:14 before reverting):

c) Another technique is to add extra, smaller notes where needed to “smooth” the transition between large jumps in pitch (see my video below for an example).

d) Pitch bends. This can be a great way to add extra interest and keep your listener engaged. It can also be used instead of / as well as the technique in point c) (again, see my video below for an example).

Once the actual musical information is there with a basic sound (or two for “call and response”), you can move onto sound design and add even more “spice”, using tools like portamento, filter cutoff and other effects to add variety and interest to your melody.


In the video below I’m creating a melody from scratch, so you can see me work through the techniques I described above:

I hope this helps! I recommend having a play over the weekend, and let me know how you get on. Do you have any tips or techniques for writing melodies, or any questions? Let me know in the comments section below.

Cheers, and happy producing! 🙂
Will

About the Author

My name's Will Darling. I've been making and playing dance music for over 20 years, and share what I've learnt on EDMtips. Get in touch on Facebook.

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