Why Are Some Melodies More Popular Than Others?

Posted: October 7, 2013 in Piano


My world is still open, at this time when the Federal government is closed. In my world, on this morning, I was thinking about melody – why some music enjoys the validation that popularity brings, while other music only achieves the status of sounding weird.

I write music. The process is called composing, and since I do that, I am a composer. I assign a connotation to the word composer. I think it means successful music writer. I’m not a successful composer, so I refer to myself as a music writer.

What would it take to become a successful composer? I think it would be at least necessary that people know of and like your music. There are other measurements certainly. If you are a student and need to get a good grade, the benchmark for success might be different. Composing a fugue that has all the correct parts is different than composing one that becomes popular.

My music is dependent on all the music I have ever heard, studied or played. I use the 12 tone scale. That separates my music from all music written using other scales. When I hear Indian music, or Arabic, Chinese or Japanese, I can tell that there is a big difference in how my music sounds compared to that music.

My music has a little Bach in it, a little Mozart, a little Chick Corea, a little James Taylor, some Jesse Colin Young, and who knows how many other influences! When I combine all of the thoughts that stream into my head that end up confirming that one arrangement of melodic notes is the idea I am trying to express at that particular moment, I am fairly certain that someone from East Malaysia would furrow his brow and say, “That sounds really weird!”

Then I wonder, “How did John Lennon and Paul McCartney manage to write melody after melody with such consistent success?” How did Gershwin and Gus Kahn; Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan manage to continually produce music that people recognized and loved?

Those are two variables we can consider: it is recognized and it is loved. It is recognized because it is familiar, unique and distinctive. My music is unique and distinctive, but it is only familiar to me. I love my music, but since I do not publish it too often, few others love it. Those variables aren’t quite enough. Music must become more than just recognized and loved.

It is a mystery to me – always has been. I cannot tell you why some music becomes popular while other music ages on a page of ink, on that page that we always turn in order to find the song we want to play.

Jim Fowler, who wrote for Keyboard Magazine years ago, once constructed a matrix of every combination of four quarter notes using G, C, D, & E. That would be, what? – 16 variations? Out of those variations, he found that certain combinations were used in several songs. Those four notes could be the start of “The Nearness of You” or “How Dry I Am” or “On the Boardwalk”. So there appears to be a repetitive element to writing popular music. Are we then just mimicking the music that has influenced us over the years? Randy Newman is a very popular film score composer, and his tunes all share a style that is rather familiar.

Then there is Dave Grusin whose songs have wildly different styles that make it difficult to determine who the composer is. The string quartets of Hayden sound almost identical to those of Mozart, but then there is Stravinsky who sounds nothing like Wagner.

I can only conclude that a song does not become popular simply because it is similar to what we are accustomed to hearing. But that realization only makes it more difficult to say exactly why music becomes popular, or why some melodies are considered to be better than others.

My music is familiar to me. In fact, I get tired of listening to my music because it often sounds similar to everything else I have ever written. When that happens, I seek out new influences, study how others have treated similar melodies, use a different harmonic structure, or just force my brain to produce something more random – a mental scribble – one I can tweak to form a more cogent idea.

When I hear the music of amateur artists who have published their recorded music on the web, I do actually appreciate that their music sounds good to them, even though it sounds unfamiliar and often “thin” to me. By “thin” I mean that the complexity isn’t there. It may be too predictable or too simple – there is something about it that just doesn’t quite excite me. But I do acknowledge that not only does it excite the writer, but it is familiar to the writer as well. I could then say that melody is the expression of what excites the composer, at a given point in time that marks that composer’s expressive abilities and access to prior influences.

But then someone writes “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and you wonder how complex an expressive ability has to become before someone can write such a simplistic and yet wildly popular melody.

It seems to be impossible to nail this subject to the post. If we just say that writing is a process, without really trying to direct the outcome to match a desired level of quality, then we might as well throw out all the successful formula writing that makes Pop music Pop, or Disney music Disney.

I write, therefore I am.

I think I am, therefore I think I am.

I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.



When I start quoting cartoon characters, it is a sure sign that I have exhausted the topic and the patience of my reader.

  1. moorethanjustsigns says:

    I knew a girl named Melody….she was very cute. Assume the reason she was more popular?

  2. nasramdaw2 says:

    Found this very interesting.

    Sent from my Galaxy S®III