The most recognizable aspect of a song is almost always the melody in the music. Whether it is the latest song of Charlie Puth, a classic hit by Michael Jackson or an even more classical music piece by Mozart: the melody is responsible for making you go “oh, yeah, I know that one!”. The recognizability of a catchy melody that is easy to follow makes a ‘good’ song. One should be able to sing along with it, be it as a professional singer or as a young child with no musical experience whatsoever.
But what exactly is melody?
Stripped all the way down to the absolute essence, a melody is nothing more than a pattern of notes rhythmically strung together over time. As music expert David Levitin points out in his lovely book ‘This is your brain on music’, it is a small miracle that we humans can even identify all these lonely music notes as one coherent pattern, let alone that we can remember it for decades. Animals can sometimes understand the pitch of one single tone, but they lack the creative imagination to understand that a bunch of notes played after each other form a melody. So it’s actually a sign of being civilized and educated that you can still remember that one stupid children-cartoons leader that you saw ages ago!
But melody alone can’t make a track work (although some post-modern composers have certainly tried…). There should also be a layer of chords underneath the melody, a steady basis that forms the backbone of a song and provides the boundaries within which the melody can develop itself. The only way to keep attention, to keep the track interesting is the chord progression and with it the freedom it creates for the melody. In a good musical piece, the use of underlying chords sets the feeling of tension and relaxation. Up and down, forwards and backwards. Funny enough, the use of these chord progressions has sometimes been very limited in popular songs: when you learn just 4 chords, you will be able to play a completely staggering amount of songs: Check this page.
Thankfully, there exists a lot more chord-diversity in longer and more complex pieces that are used for film scores, game soundtracks and trailers. But the basic musical rules that take your breath away, give you a feeling of anxiety or relief and were tested to their absolute limit by the great composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Bach all those years ago, still remain true today in modern music. From pop music songs to film and trailer scoring.