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Thomas J. West Music

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Melody Writing

The Elements Of Good Melody Writing


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Singing a tune is as natural to humans as breathing. We all get a "song stuck in our head" (referred to on the internet as an "earworm") from time to time. Melody incorporates the two most basic elements of music into a form that is able to be memorized and communicates meaning. Anyone can literally get a sense of the key and improvise a melody with their voice. For example, listen to the following primary chords in the key of C, then sing your own melody on a neutral syllable to fit the chord progression and rhythmic accompaniment that follows:



Melody Specifics

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It really is that natural and simple, but not all melodies are created equal. To be considered a melody at all, melodies need to have the following elements:

Pitch: Melodies generally must begin on the tonic pitch (scale degree 1 of the scale), travel away from 1, and arrive back to the tonic pitch. This gives a melodic line a sense of closure. Also, in major keys, scale degree 7 (known as the leading tone) pulls the ear strongly back to scale degree 8 (the tonic pitch) because it is only a half-step away. Melodies generally follow an arch shape, arcing away from tonic and returning there. They also tend to move in step-wise motion with occasional skips, passing from chord tones on beats 1 and 3 (in 4/4 time) to non-chord tones on beats 2 and 4.

Rhythm: Melodies generally flow from shorter rhythmic values to longer ones at the ends of phrases. Melodic phrases tend to use rhythms that emphasize the strong beats in the time signature (beats 1 and 3 in 4/4, beat 1 in 3/4, beats 1 and 4 in 6/8). Melodies also tend to incorporate rhythmic patterns that mimic speech. If you match rhtyhms to the flow of the songs lyrics (or even make up your own lyrics, even if the piece is instrumental only), you will have a much more natural flow to the melody.

In addition to these two basic elements, quality melodies also incorporate the following concepts:

Form: Good melodic lines flow in patterns that again mimic speech. Good melody lines communicate meaning in how the melodic phrases relate to each other as well as through pitch, rhythm, and expressive phrasing. Some common melodic forms are:

A - B - A
Antecedent - Consequent (a.k.a. call and response)
A - A - B
Through-composed (no repetition of ideas)

Expressive Phrasing: The most effective melodies maximize their effect by combining pitch, rhythm, and form in ways that communicate emotion in an expressive manner. This is accompished by selecting pitches and rhythms that create emotional tension and release at opportune moments. A good concept to use when writing expressive melodic lines is to think of the notes as they would react to gravity. The higher above the tonic pitch the melody goes, the more emotional energy it contains. The more quickly the melody arrives at that higher pitch, the more intense the moment is. By this guideline, skips up in the melody are more intense than steps up, and skips that happen in the space of half a beat are more intense than skips that happen over two beats. The farther the skip, the more intensity it brings. When this is combined with shaping the phrases according to the form, you maximize the amount of emotional communication of the melody.

Below is an example of a great melodic line - the Irish folk song "Danny Boy". Click on the annotations to read specifics about its construction. This version is in the key of F major with a simplified harmonic structure. The first half of the song is in antecedent-consequent form, the second half is through-composed.

Note: Click on the small page icon above the melody notes to read annotations about specific melodic elements throughout the score.



Tips For Writing Your Own Melodies

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Not all melodic lines have to have all of these elements to be effective. Some of the catchiest tunes of all time have only three pitches in them and rely on rhythm to communicate effectively.
 For true depth to the music, however, quality melodic lines incorporate all of these elements simultaneously.

Here are some tips for writing your own melodies:

1. Keep it simple: Start with a simple chord progression and use simple rhythms. Write using steps up and down with occasional skips for emphasis.

2. Make an arch: Start on the tonic pitch, arc away from scale degree 1, arriving at some point to scale degree 5, then falling back to 1. You can also end the melody on 8.

3. Write chord tones on strong beats: Generally, you want to hit the root, third, or fifth of a chord on the strong beats of the measure and use the notes in between chord tones as passing notes on weaker beats.

4. Use various rhythms to add variety: short rhythms lead to long rhythms.

5. Listen to great music: the best way to become a great writer of melodies is to listen to music that has great melodies. Remember that melodies with depth take into account all of the things discussed before.

6. Have fun composing!: You can't get it wrong, it's an original work of art! There is always room for improvement. Your melodies will most likely sound like another song you've heard before. Don't use "I don't have any good ideas" as an excuse. Honestly, you haven't had enough BAD ideas yet to have some good ones occur.

7. Keep a sketchbook or recorder handy: Some of your best musical ideas will come while you are busy doing something else such as traveling in the car, eating your lunch, or even taking a shower! Have a pad of paper handy, or even better, a portable digital recorder you can sing your idea into. With today's smart phones, it is easy to record your ideas. Beethoven's sketchbook was the size of the Encyclopeida Brittanica!

Happy composing!

This article (c) 2011 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.

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