Tool #22: Writing a Strong Melody


Firstly, why should one write melodies?  Even if one doesn’t use melody in the “conventional” sense in one’s pieces, the ability to write melodies is a good asset to have because:

  • A sense of line helps the listener understand a piece and make connections or distinctions between musical events.
  • Melodies are often the result of underlying harmony, so as melodic prowess increases, so does harmonic development.
  • Rhythm can make or break a melody, and since rhythm is the most basic element of music, when one writes melody one is exercising one’s basic musical muscles.
  • Knowledge of counterpoint through writing simultaneously coexisting melodies is a tool that is invaluable in any musical idiom.
  • Melody can define the aesthetic of a piece.  If one is repeating a common pulse tone it might make things more minimalist, if it involves outlining seventh chords it might sound jazzy, and if it focuses on dissonant intervals and extreme leaps the music may sound atonal.
  • In vocal writing, the combination of prosody, register, and vowel/consonant placement is integral to making a piece idiomatic, and writing a melody that fits those demands is a key tool to writing effectively for the human voice.

So, being able to write a melody is extremely important, whether one is writing crystalline Feldman-esque music, scorrevole-infused Carterian quartets, or Brahmsian lyricism.  The next question is, then, what constitutes a strong melody?  I discuss melodies in four aesthetics (the ones I am most capable of discussing): tonal, atonal, jazz, and minimalist music.  There are of course many, many other styles out there that I could discuss, but these four are the ones about which I am most confident speaking.

-Intervallic content within the line: depending on the aesthetic or feel of the piece at the time of the melody, here are a few guidelines for intervals between successive melodic notes:

Tonal music: outline the harmonies beneath, above, or around it, including consonant intervals, lots of step-wise motion, gradually rising and falling lines, and with the leaps in the melody consisting of fifths and sixths.

Atonal music: use dissonant intervals, leaps consisting of tritones, sevenths, ninths, and larger intervals, and with lots of  mixed registers and undulations.

Jazz: use lots of upper parts of the chords beneath it (sevenths, ninths, elevenths, thirteenths), with dissonances allowed but having a relation to the chords beneath (eg. a tritone leap that is the tritone of a dominant seventh chord).

Minimalist music: use lots of repetition, small intervals (generally a perfect fifth or smaller), and don’t be afraid to include pentatonic and blues scales.

-Rhythm in the melody:

Tonal music: a common rhythmic motive can unify a melody, and re-using the same rhythmic element or value can create motion that is fluid and regular.

Atonal music: nearly any rhythmic value goes, especially with rhythms that eliminate a sense of pulse and ones that avoid repeated rhythms.  Tuplets in odd numbers (eg. 5 in 3) are a good way to eliminate flow and discernibly regular rhythmic progression.

Jazz: swing it up!  Also, use lots of chord tones on the 1 and 3 beats and the  “and” of those beats.  Save interesting chromaticisms and non-chord tones for the 2 and 4  beats and the “e” and “a” of those beats.  For freer jazz, use mixed meters and irregular attacks (eg. starting a melody on the second beat of a triplet and having the next note on the “e” of the next beat).

Minimalist music: keep the pulse going.  A piece is as fast or slow as its basic rhythmically repeated value, so if one wants to emphasize an eighth note pulse, keep using eighth notes and put melodic tones on key rhythmical hits.  Repeat these rhythmical hits often (eg. always having a high note on the third eighth note of a repeating 5/8 measure).

-Texture and counterpoint: where does one place the melody, and what is happening around it?

Tonal music: there is often a melody with accompanying figures (eg. a Mozart string trio), or in the case of very contrapuntal music such as a vocal piece by Palestrina, every voice is a melody that rises and falls–construct melodies in this context that each performer can bring out as s/he rises and falls.

Atonal music: complexity, multiple melodies, and chaos is a quintessential option for this aesthetic, but sparseness, pointillism, and a focus on single notes spread wide apart with a focus on individual note duration is also widespread.  Whatever you chose and mix-and-match, contrast between and within notes and lines is integral as well.

Jazz: an older example might have a drum groove, a bassline outlining the changes, and a piano or guitar/chordal instrument filling things out as a melody is placed above all of these by a wind instrument.  More modern examples might include a host of background percussion (think Pat Metheny’s huge latin/world percussion arsenal), and freer jazz might have a more atonal feel through either chaos (through simultaneity) or smoothness (through sparseness and a focus on long durations).

Minimalist music: a mix of instruments playing simple melodies may combine to create a wash of sound, with every instrument at equal volume for long periods of time so that the listener has to pick out each line through the polyrhythms.  Lines may gradually crescendo/diminuendo to make the piece an amorphous, shape-shifting, multifaceted, and fluid organism.

I hope my focus on melody today has given you the urge to try some of these techniques in constructing melodies, and provokes you to look at the lines you create and how they fit in with other lines or the other texture of a piece.  I know I made generalizations about certain styles in this post, but I feel it is okay to generalize to the extent I did, because there are indeed certain divisions that separate genres of composed music.  If you have any feedback, I’m glad to listen to it and consider it thoughtfully.  I hope you enjoyed this post, and thanks for reading!

-Dan

**I know it has been a while since I last posted, but I don’t want to neglect this blog anymore despite my schedule that has barely allowed time for basic composing.  I’ll try my best to keep this blog updated, and hopefully there won’t be any more breaks in it like the one preceding this post.  Thank you for your understanding.**

3 thoughts on “Tool #22: Writing a Strong Melody

  1. I like your observations–I feel like they pretty much hit the nail on the head. Your connection between melodic prowess and harmonic development is actually something I’ve been working on since the beginning of the school year. One of my weaknesses not too long ago was beginning a piece with a very vague understanding of the harmonic palette I set out to use. Being a violin/viola player, I often started to write melody-first without being very intentional about the harmonic content and thinking that the harmonies would take care of themselves–which they did–but to a very limited extent.

    For my three most-recent pieces, my strategy involved making up a scale (usually by taking a known scale and manipulating the intervals–I usually prefer to write modally), exploring the possibilities and character of that scale (tendency tones and whatnot), and transposing it to explore the various colors that the scale could create. I’ve been tremendously pleased with the improvements in both harmonic and melodic development, and I would like to find ways to take it further.

    Wishing you a productive new year!

    Sakari D.

    1. Thanks for the comment–I also enjoy finding out interesting points of self-created scales/modes, and I think it really helps harmonic development (like you indicated). I’m a former cello player (now jazz guitarist, go figure!) so I’m more melodically inclined as well when I first start a piece, and I have the same issues with wanting to develop a harmonic palette earlier on in the process of writing–as early as I develop melodies and motives. Jazz guitar has helped me with that, because it makes me think in terms of intervals, which I then can use to generate harmony. I’m really fascinated by that kind of harmonic genesis.
      Wishing you a productive new year as well!
      Dan

  2. Pingback: New Year’s Reflections « Sakari Dixon

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