Ahh, the “2nd Melody” aka the vitally important yet usually overlooked magical hit factor of “The Riff.” If you’re not already switched on to this idea, I really think this could be a huge insight for you.
And I remember how I came upon this mini epiphany … especially since it took 20 years into my publishing career to figure this songwriting technique out (and also a concept I really just don’t hear anyone talking about). Here’s how it happened.
Gather round, kids, let me let you in on a little secret. Gather ‘round. No, not you Naan Bread!
A key professional, hit songwriter came into my office for a creative meeting, and to frame the timing, this was back when I was working at Kobalt Music Publishing. We were listening to one of her new songs - which was legitimately really, really good. But something - hmm, something just wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
I couldn’t put my finger on it.
And then … I realized ...
The demo. The melody. The … Chords.
Even though it was a full demo - and all the main elements in the production were there (i.e. bass, guitar, drums, vocals, etc) - essentially the core of the song was presented as a melody (which she was singing) and the harmony really being just chords. Plonk. Plonk. Plonk. Strum. Strum. Strum.
Now, this is not out of the ordinary. But for a visual representation … it kinda looked like this:
Nonetheless … something just wasn’t “igniting” for me on this song.
And then ...
That’s when I realized that the truly great songs and hits of our time - usually have more than one melody going on at the same time.
Yes! It’s a second, or even third melody happening concurrently with the actual lyric/melody the vocalist is singing.
In other words what if the song looked more like this? - Replacing the “Chord” in that equation with instead - a 2nd melody!?
Still with me?
Let me further unpack this mindset shift, but first, you’ll need to roll with me on the following premise:
THE HUMAN BRAIN LOVES TO SING MORE THAN ONE MELODY AT THE SAME TIME!
I know what you’re saying. “Bro, dude - c’mon ... you can’t sing more than one melody at the same time!”
Ummm - Yes you can! And yes, you already are doing this. Let me give you an example.
Below is what they call a Bach 2 Part Piano Invention. It’s comprised of 2 melodies.
Each melody is beautiful on its own - and each exists independently. But! Put them both together and the piece is even more incredible. It’s what they also call counterpoint.
Which melody would you be singing in your “mind” or - experiencing? Probably both, right?!
Fast forward a few hundred years - and we have this classic: AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Please play the below and REJOICE.
Yes, Angus Young’s signature guitar riff. AMAZING.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re air guitaring while listening. You might even be “singing” the riff vocally or at least vocalizing it internally in your brain.
So, stay with me here. The guitar riff in “Back in Black” would be “melody #2” in the above previous equation (replacing the previous “chord + chord + chord” area). The riff - IS. A. MELODY!
And then - Brian Johnson’s ripping vocal comes in.
“Back in black / I hit the sack / I've been too long I'm glad to be back / Yes, I'm let loose / From the noose / That's kept me hanging about / I’m here to say I’m back to be black”
Whoa. OK that’s Melody #1 (the lead vocal, of course)
And now - you betcha, both that amazing guitar riff and the vocal - well, guess what - they’re both “playing” at the same time.
So - I have a question here for you:
Which of those melodies are you singing? The blazing guitar riff? Or Brian Johnson’s scorching vocal. Maybe you switch back and forth? Or is it both - at the same time? Bingo!
Personally, that’s how I do it. I experience and “sing” both of those elements at the same time.
This is what I call MODERN COUNTERPOINT.
If you dig further on this concept … you’re going to have your epiphany of the day year - and (and certainly maybe even a million bucks in your future songwriting royalties, if you really apply this concept).
Epiphany of the Year and secret sauce of hit songwriting … the brain loves to sing more than 1 melody at the same time. It’s what I call the “2nd melody.” HINT: if you’re in a rock band - you’re just going to call that 2nd melody "the riff."
But referencing the above note, however, these just aren’t “guitar” riffs. 2nd melodies can show up as many elements in the song.
It’s pretty simple. And adding to simplicity, my guidelines below outline how to use this 2nd melody concept … basically, in my opinion, what qualifies and what doesn’t.
In other words - no one will really care about your little “ditty” that you can’t register paperwork with the library of congress. For example, there’s no way you can use the amazing guitar riff / arpeggiation in The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” without getting sued by Sting (unfortunately and apparently, Andy Summers wouldn’t be involved in that lawsuit, but that’s a different blog post).
To use The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” as an example - just by performing that guitar riff - well, we all knows the song is “Every Breath You Take,” BMI’s #1 most performed song of the year, even before we would hear the vocal!
Since we’re talking about the modern classic “Every Breath You Take,” let’s take a look and listen.
Yup, there’s a reason this song is a classic! But let’s break this down a little and take a listen to the actual riff aka the 2nd Melody - Check out the below for the 2nd element / 2nd melody of the song which brings the magic and hit factor.
OK. Let’s take a look at a playlist I’ve put together below.
It doesn’t matter if the song is from Billie Eilish, Michael Jackson, Judas Priest, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Missy Elliot or Nine Inch Nails. The master songwriters use 2nd melodies all. the. time.
So hopefully this is clicking and you have your massive epiphany! Perennial, classic and hit songs in any genre, in any decade - usually have a 2nd melody going on within the song.
I mean just imagine if “Every Breath You Take” was just “strum/chords + strum/chord + strum/chord?!” Not as fun. Not as catchy. You see, it’s that signature arpeggiation riff (the 2nd melody) that helps makes the song a classic, and helps sends the “hook factor” signal to the brain.
Now, from the same decade as The Police - let’s look at another great example. Try to imagine The Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This” with the harmony / backing track as just a stock piano chord: plonkedy + plonkedy + plonk. BLAH!
There’s no way, at least in my opinion, that that song would be as huge as it is today.
Let’s just look at the synth pattern here of “Sweet Dreams are Made Of This” - The Riff aka the 2nd Melody.
Bingo x 3000!
But don’t take my word for it. Let’s ask my own personal favorite artist of all time, Trent Reznor aka NIN - and see if he uses any 2nd melodies?
Holy “s” balls. You bet!
By the end of this song, Trent has like 3, 4, 5 and more melodies going on: at. the. same. time. And it’s A M A Z I N G.
Now, with many songs … it might not be that both the chorus and the verse uses this 2nd melody game going on. There doesn’t always have to be a 2nd melody occurring in every section of your song. You also need contrast - which is a whole other game and a whole other book!
In other words:
A hit song or a classic might have this 2nd melody idea taking place in the verses. In another song, this method might be used during the chorus. In some songs - it’s used in both the verses and the chorus!
For another metaphor that hopefully seals the concept and importance of the 2nd melody protocol - try this concept on.
Imagine you have a really nice stereo system. You’ve got a woofer, a mid and a tweeter.
But imagine you’re listening to say - Notorious B.I.G. and the woofer is blown. Or a great classical flute concerto and the tweeter is disconnected! Or really - it doesn’t matter. No matter what you play on that stereo - it’s kinda going to sound like crap (or certainly not as good AT ALL - as the other stereo down the hall (i.e. your songwriting competition), where the woofer, mids and tweeters are all working perfectly).
It’s just like that in songwriting.
Having no 2nd melody in your song is equivalent (to me) as having a nice stereo system with one of speaker cones smashed in.
Your ears (in this case your brain) are just not getting those frequencies! Blahsville!
It’s exactly the same with amazing, hit songs.
These hits songs are firing and sending the “right” signals to your brain.
It’s FIRE! It’s ON!! Simply put … having no 2nd melody in your song is absolutely analogous (at least to me) with one of your 3 way stereo systems misfiring or the right channel unplugged.
In other words - no one wants to listen to, come over, and hear your busted speakers when it comes time for Friday night dance party.
Now, I have one, maybe two other little pieces of morsels and food for thought.
Now - here’s the last trick.
Let’s say you’ve finished the song and … “Oh snap-o-doodle - we don’t really have a great riff or 2nd melody!”
“No problemo,” as a young John Connor once said to Arnold in Terminator 2.
Here’s the solution:
As per outlining the chords, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is a great example.
You have a signature bass line (and by the way - a signature drum beat too - a DJ merely needs to play the opening 1st measure of drum beat - and everyone knows it’s “Billie Jean” - hmm, food for thought), and then you have small little other “figures” and arrangement “moments” outlining the chords! Voila!
I mean, check out this multitrack/stems session from “Billie Jean.”
Can you hear all of those signature little melodies - that together (the bassline - the synth stabs - the strings - the guitar lick, etc) - build a complete harmonic package?!
BINGO FACTOR GENIUS LEVEL! YOU GOT IT!
You’ll be shocked and pleasantly surprised applying this secret songwriting tip … especially when the royalty checks start showing up in your bank account (and please … remember me when it’s time to do a publishing deal : )
Hope it’s helpful.