On melody

In an interview with Playboy in 1980, John Lennon talked about writing the song “Nowhere Man”; “I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down,” he said. “Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.”

When we talk about John Lennon, we often recognize him as being one of the greatest songwriters in the history of rock music. But for those five hours, even in 1965, at the height of the success of the Beatles — he couldn’t write a good song. For that matter, after Imagine in 1971, Lennon seems to have lost his genius: He spent the last nine years of his life writing mediocre, unimpressive pop. This doesn’t seem to make sense. During those nine years and especially during those five hours, Lennon had everything he needed to write pure pop perfection. He had experience, he had written good songs countless times before, and he knew more about songwriting than anyone. But it wasn’t enough.

Inconsistencies like this abound in pop music. All too often, bands create one immaculate album and then go on to release several sub-par ones. I’ve probably listened to The Strokes album Is This It? over 50 times; yet I’ve only listened to the band’s next two albums once or twice. How did Weezer go from the brilliance of The Blue Album and Pinkerton to the lamentable Green Album? Another issue: In bands with two guitarists — both players then equally suited to songwriting — one guitarist often winds up writing all of the songs. Finally, there’s also the problem of one-hit wonders, where the gift of songwriting enters into a musician for just a few hours or days, leaving him as quickly as it came. The answer to all of these problems lies in one thing: vocal melody.

Melody is quite often the most important element of a pop song. It’s what you sing along to; it’s what attracts you and makes you come back for more. Without well-crafted melodies, pop songs tend to fall apart. Unfortunately for songwriters, this most important element is also the most elusive. Writing melodies cannot be taught; melodies must be summoned, and quite often they just don’t come. The best songwriters know what things lead to a good melody: certain chord changes (although too much theory can be detrimental), experimentation, and practice in general; but none of these strategies will ever guarantee that one will come.

To be sure, all art involves this inconsistency. There is no “formula” for great literature, painting, poetry, or film, yet melody is somehow different. Your brain undergoes an instinctual “yes/no” reaction when it hears a melody, while these other art forms usually leave room for a “maybe.” Melodies can neither hide nor argue.

Give some credit then to those few bands that are capable of putting out one solid album after the next. Still, don’t be surprised if their next record bombs; even John Lennon couldn’t keep it going forever.