The most important element of a song……..
The melody, the words, the beat? Maybe the dynamics, tempo, or the chord progression? How about the vibe, the mix, the production, the master? We seem to have all the right things – good gear (maybe pro gear), your band has a great look, energy, you’ve spent the money and time creating and producing excellent sounding recordings of songs you’ve slaved over. You’ve worried about how the words flow and you’ve even made your songs have a universal appeal just like the songwriting books tell you too. So why do these songs fall flat. Perhaps the answer is found in the great composers and songwriters – their best music all has it. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, John Lennon and Paul McCartney…the list goes on and on. If it lasts, it has this.
I call it
The hum-ability factor.
The Hum-ability Factor is the immediate response to all of the elements of music working together to create a tune that can instantly be remembered after 1 listening.
Doesn’t that just mean “Catchy”? Not really. A catchy melody is like sugar that melts on the tongue – its sweet while its there but it doesn’t last. If you have ever gone to a musical and enjoyed the show but can’t sing any of the songs afterwards then you know what I am talking about. They were catchy at best, but they did not have The Hum-ability Factor.
I know for me, I didn’t start writing even remotely “Hum-able” melodies until I put my ego out of the writing process. As a younger musician, I was more concerned with how acrobatic the singing was, how fast the notes went by, or how complicated the harmony was. More Complicated = Better. But as melodies fell flat and no one could remember my songs, it became clear that my songwriting just sucked. It was too cerebral and it lacked heart. It certainly wasn’t “Hum-able”.
For awhile I stopped writing songs (at least with words) and focused on making solo classical guitar music and playing jazz standards. It wasn’t until I started writing music for my Kirtan group that I began to hone in on how to make a melody “Hum-able.” Since Kirtan is a form of meditation using call and response singing, it is very important to make melodies that are “easy to sing and easy to remember”. But making something easy doesn’t necessarily make it “Hum-able”.
“Hum-ablity” comes from a balance of predictable and unpredictable material.
If the listener hears the same material over and over again, they should be able to remember it right? But they will also become bored because they already know what is coming next. Science actually proves this phenomenon. Think of a ticking clock in a room. You know it’s there but your ear filters it out because repetitious sounds that are not dangerous are unimportant. Wow!
On the flip side, if the music changes constantly with no repetition at all, then the listener becomes overwhelmed trying to make sense out of what they are hearing. Mental Fatigue sets in. The answer lies between the two extremes.
Here is an exercise that I use:
Try listening to a song or melody you really like. Preferably something that has been around awhile. Transcribe it and look at it’s symmetry or lack there of. Where in the melody is it “predictable” and where is it not? Do the same thing with another song. Compare them. Now look at your melodies. Transcribe them. Drop the ego and be honest with yourself – is it too easy or too complicated?
Let me know what you think and let’s go make something “Hum-able”!