You can have a song…only if there is a melody.
You can have lyrics…but without a melody…it’s poetry.
You can have rhythm…but without a melody…it’s just a beat.
Of course lyrics and rhythm are important aspects in music, but the only essential ingredient is melody. A song without lyrics is still a song…an instrumental…and you can vary the rhythm.
There’s an excellent book Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo.
He interviews over 60 songwriters. One of the more fascinating revelations is that songwriters tell him some of their best songs come to them almost like the universe is presenting them with a gift. Three famous examples of this are the songs “Yesterday”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “You’ve Got A Friend”. Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and Carole King say the songs came to them in dreams. Plus, so many times songwriters have said…”It practically wrote itself”.
So who is the best melody writer? Paul Simon says it’s Paul McCartney. Let’s check the evidence. The most recorded song of all time is “Yesterday”. For years, the second most recorded song was “Michelle”. A recent search of the top ten most recorded songs found “Yesterday” still at #1 with “Eleanor Rigby” now at #2. Also in the top ten are “And I Love Her” and “Blackbird”. No other songwriter has more than one song in the top ten. John Lennon has “Imagine”, and then there are older classics like “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “Summertime”.
Here’s a playlist of some of McCartney’s Beatle songs. (You can tap or click it to make it larger.)
By the way, my playlists include “Beatle Songs by John”, “Beatle Songs by Ringo”, and my favorite title: “Beatle Songs By George”.
While nearly everyone knows The Beatles were the top Billboard singles artists of the 1960’s, it might come as a surprise that Paul McCartney was the top singles artist of the 1970’s (he was mistakenly listed as #2 earlier). Sir Paul has had 37 top 40 hits, 9 number one singles and 8 number one albums. McCartney opens himself to criticism at times for less than poignant lyrics, but no one questions his melody writing. “Silly Love Songs” spent five weeks at the top of the charts. At one point in the song there are three melodies beautifully intertwined.
A playlist of some of McCartney’s best solo songs:
Today, there’s a lot of criticism about the lack of great melodies, and of course Rap is often devoid of melody altogether. The trend in Pop music is to have teams of writers manufacture the hits. This results in some interesting arrangements that can have “hooks”, but most do not have the classic flow of great melodies. Maybe there needs to be a little less teamwork and commercial intent, and a little more soul and inspiration.