July 17, 2013  

How To Write A Melody Part 3

This tutorial follows on from How To Write A Melody Part 2 which discusses how to use passing notes to create interesting melodies. Ultimately, you can use any notes you wish in your melody, but you will find that the most memorable and natural sounding melodies are based almost entirely on the notes in the chord you are using, with passing notes getting you from one note in the chord to another.

So far, we’ve only dealt with a couple of rules that help us choose notes for a melody, but there is a principle that most topline writers use in their work everyday that we’ve yet to discuss. Welcome to the world of Motifs…How do we make our melodies catchy?

When we’re writing a song, it’s usually a good idea to start by writing a simple melodic phrase that fits a short lyrical phrase, such as the title of the song. We then use this short phrase as the basis of the rest of our melody. This short phrase that we base our melody around is known as a Motif.

Let’s take this simple phrase as an example – Bright Young Thing. Try speaking the phrase out load a few times…do you notice anything whilst you’re saying it?Chances are that you instinctively pitch the word ‘Bright’ higher than ‘Young’ or ‘Thing’. Also, I bet you pitched the word ‘thing’ lowest of all. This is quite normal in British English, where in most regional accents the last word in a phrase tends to be lower in pitch. But this also gives us an instant starting point for our melody, a shape that will help us choose our notes.

Also, ‘Bright Young Thing’ sounds optimistic, energetic and positive, so naturally we would be thinking of using a major chord as our harmonic basis. The chord of D tends to sound very alive, especially when played on a guitar or keyboard, so lets use that:

As you can see from the keyboard above, we have three main notes to chose from: “D”, “F#” and “A”, and we know that using the spoken pitch shape that ‘Bright’ will be our highest note and ‘Thing’ the lowest. Ok, well how about this as our main motive:

Bright Young Thing

A           F#       D

That works just fine, in fact it’s the same melody as used in the song “International Bright Young Thing” by the 1990s band Jesus Jones, which was a major international hit.

Thing is, it’s not very exciting really is it? Our melody still has a nursery rhyme feel to it…let’s try something different. Maybe if we changed the chord sequence to make it a little more interesting we can come up with a better motive. How about: E minor / G / D

Well, that’s instantly more interesting. We’re starting the phrase on a chord that isn’t the fundamental chord and ending on the chord that is the fundamental, D, so the sequence feels rounded and complete. Now how about this as a melody:

Bright Young Thing

F#         E          D

Sounds promising. Now try playing the chords and singing the phrase over the top, like this:

Now that’s more like it. It’s far more interesting, it actually sounds quite cool. Notice that ‘F#’ does not belong in the chord of Em, and ‘E’ does not belong in the chord of G, but they both make sense in this context because they are passing notes leading to the ‘D’ that sounds at the same time as the D chord.

In fact, because the first two notes are passing notes and do not belong to that chord we have created a very simple instance of tension and release, one of the guiding principles for great melodies. The first two notes heighten our expectations, creating a subtle sense of anticipation for the last note that resolves the harmonic conflicts of the original two.

Developing the idea…We have a title, a chord sequence, an opening motif and a key to work with. What now? Most melodies involve a large amount of repetition, not necessarily the exact same thing repeated but maybe a repetition with a slight variation. We have a strong melodic shape already, three notes descending, so why not do that again but slightly higher? Try this:

That seems to work just fine, it follows the same melodic shape and also includes a certain amount of tension and release as the note A doesn’t occur in the chord Em. This is how most catchy melodies are written. The composer finds a motif as their starting point, and then repeats it throughout the song, changing the actual notes sung but keeping the same melodic ‘shape’.

So far we have two lines in our melody, refresh your memory if you need to by playing and singing them to yourself right now.We already know that most songs are based on phrases of four lines, so let’s see if we can write another two lines based on what we have already.

We know that our chord sequence is strong so let’s not mess around with that… how about rising the melody line even higher to create a climax and make a variation on the melodic shape, and then rounding it off with a repeat of the first line? Something like this:

So there you have it, a hooky or catchy melody written from a motif. Simple!

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Editor’s Note: This is an old article and things have moved on considerably since the original publication date 🙂

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This post is included in Tips & Tricks