What makes a good melody? That question has been asked for centuries. Books and treatises have been published on the subject. On average, musicians take this category into account more than any other category when writing a song. A good melody can truly carry a song into greatness, regardless of what else goes on in the music. Historically, a good melody is one that follows mostly conjunct motion, being void of constant skips or leaps. Another agreed upon feature of a good melody is staying within a comfortable range and not hanging around the extremes of the instrument or voice. Successful melodies also typically have clear harmonic support. This means that the melody can be easily harmonized, usually with the basic chords of the key. Mary Had A Little Lamb is one of the most widely sung melodies, and it is a wonderful example of all three of these elements. In general, nursery rhymes have some of the best composed melodies, even though the songs have literally nothing else to them.
I will take the theoretical elements of a successful melody into consideration when rating a piece. I will also rate melodies based on how memorable they are. There is not really a scientific way to measure this, but I believe that a melody can be considered successful or unsuccessful based on how well it is stuck in the listener’s head. Relating to this is how desirable the melody is to be heard and how much the listener wants it to repeat. For me, I always want Point Of Know Return by Kansas to keep going for another couple of minutes, since the melody of the refrain is so enticing and gets more powerful at each iteration. I cannot say the same for Achey Breaky Heart by Billy Ray Cyrus, which stays long past its welcome. These aspects of the analysis are quite subjective, but I will always explain my thoughts. I am looking the amount of intrigue that a melody provides, hence the name of the category.
What about music that is not pitch-based? There are certainly some genres of music that do not intend to create melodies at all and focus solely on texture. Does a piece of music absolutely need a melody in order for it to be considered good? In short, yes. A melodic line is an essential musical element, and without it music would be terribly bland and cease to be more than random sound. That’s not to say that non pitch-based music is without melody. There can even be melodies made up of just one note. The only things a melody need are slight separation from the rest of the texture and some form of linear movement. Whether intended or not, this occurs all the time in textural dominant music, such as Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s album The Plateaux Of Mirror. There is a traceable melody above each texture, even if it moves at a gradual pace. I will give a score out of 50 points for the melodic intrigue of each piece.