There are two different kinds of melodies. Tuneful ones and untuneful ones.
Now what is a “tuneful” melody?
It’s one where if you play that melody instrumentally, it still holds listeners’ attention.
That sounds obvious if you’re talking instrumental music, but in songs with words, that’s not always a given. You’d be surprised how many songs — even really good ones — have melodies that just don’t stand up on its own if you took away the words.
What Makes Melodies Untuneful vs. Tuneful
When we looked at intervals, we learned that smaller intervals sound more smooth and predictable. Untuneful melodies
- tend to feature small intervals, and/or
- dwell on same notes, and/or
- stick to mostly chord tones, with predictable and generic rhythm.
It’s not that interesting to listen to on its own, but it’s useful if you want to create that kind of steady, anti-dramatic effect. It’s perhaps also easier to draw attention to words, because normally spoken language doesn’t have that big of jumps up or down both in pitch and loudness. It has a closer resemblance to spoken words.
Tuneful melodies, on the other hand, are more attention-catching on its own. Depending on how you match it with words, it can come across as unnatural, but that unnatural-ness can also be an attention-catching device. If it really deviates away from the language’s built-in ups and downs, though, the words become harder to understand. So tunefulness is a bit of a double-edged sword.
Is It Bad to Have Untuneful Melodies?
The curious thing about songs with words is that having an untuneful melody doesn’t necessarily detract from its impactfulness, as long as it’s appropriately used. For example, one thing that can be quite effective is to have untuneful melodies in verses but go to a tuneful melody for choruses. The contrast in this case can set up and draw attention to the chorus nicely. It’s also quite possible to have vocal melodies that are untuneful but have other melodic elements that add interest. Melodic death metal is an example of such approach.
It’s all about building enough interesting material into the song’s presentation as a whole. Untuneful melodies are not disadvantage necessarily, as long as it’s used to draw interest elsewhere — and that elsewhere could be lyrics (which ends up resulting in drawing attention to the melody).
Of course, if the melody is tuneful, you can rely on it to carry the interest. In fact, you’d want to take melodic element out from the rest of the songscape so that you don’t detract from the interest of the main melody.
Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken” is a great example of untuneful melodies in a still impactful song. Nobody will cover this song instrumentally (without rewriting the melody or adding more interests elsewhere) because the melody really doesn’t have much to it. But Bob Dylan brings his trademark insightful lyrics and distinct vocal delivery to hold the song together.
Counting Crows’ “Round Here” is a good example of a song that is untuneful in verses but brings in tunefulness in chorus to really deliver the impact. Adam Duritz’s verses and delivery cram in so many words that melodic lines get rather static — but that chorus, you can hum without words and you’ll still recognize.
There are countless example of great, tuneful melodies — and their impact becomes apparent if you check out instrumental covers which take out the words and let the melodies speak for themselves. Here’s the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” on solo piano by Giovanni Marradi.
To Be Tuneful, or Not To Be Tuneful?
A melody’s tunefulness is a matter of degree, of course, so some melodies may come across as tuneful to some listeners while others may listen to the same song and won’t find it tuneful. The concern from the songwriter’s point of view really is this: which part of this song is carrying the listeners’ interest? Letting tuneful melodies be the star is the simplest, most straight forward approach, but that is neither needed nor necessarily the most effective. Just become aware of the degree of tunefulness in your melody, so that if it’s not carrying the listener interest other elements will at least share the load.
What is an example of untuneful melodies/songs that are still impactful? There are many examples — please mention your example in comments.