When composing a melody, you have to be able to simultaneously comprehend all of the different aspects of a melody, while at the same time, push them out of the active working part of your mind, so your creativity can take over. This was discussed in my previous article, Creativity and The Importance of Melody.
But what are the aspects of a melody? What are the frameworks that I discuss in the previous article? What are the tools of melody writing?
The Tools of Melody Writing
Melody writing is both an art and a science. I imagine if you can ask any scientist if what they do is an art, undoubtedly they will say yes. This is because everything we do, can be accomplished at such high levels of skill, that it ceases to be a mechanical set of tasks, and becomes an expression of who we are. This is where we find the art.
But to take it to the level of art, we have to be able to first accomplish that mechanical set of tasks without thinking about them consciously. What are these tasks?
Line, Rhythm, Contour, Harmony, Range, Difficulty, and Form.
With line, we are concerned with what happens note to note. It is the microscopic view of the process of melody writing. Line comes in two different flavors – conjunct and disjunct.
Conjunct Melodic Lines
Conjunct melodic lines are step based lines or scale lines. They do not skip but instead move along a scale. Conjunct lines are frequently seen in places of relaxation and tension relief, but they can be used in places of building tension as well.
Grieg – Morning from the Peer Gynt Suite
In Grieg’s “Morning” the undulating scale line leaves you with a very peaceful feeling. (Yes I know there are a few skips in there, but overall, I consider the line a conjunct line).
Samuel Barber – Adagio for Strings
Here, Samuel Barber creates a lot of tension with this continuous rising melodic line, that is shared among the different string instruments. I think the climax at the top is one of the most striking moments in all of music.
Disjunct Melodic Lines
Disjunct melodic lines are also known as chord lines. They are not stepwise and don’t follow the scale as conjunct lines do but instead skip around. This is not to say that they are not part of a scale – they are. In fact, disjunct lines more often than not, follow specific chords. Just as with conjunct melodic lines, they can be used to create tension (sometimes enormous amounts of tension), as well as relieving it or maintaining a peaceful feel. It all depends on how you use them.
Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet, The Dance of the Knights
What can I say, powerful.
Rossini – William Tell Overture
William Tell Overture, by Rossini, has one of the most peaceful melodies out there. Even though it is disjunct, because it is hovering around the same register, it doesn’t build much tension.
Rhythm is one of the best ways to easily bring interest to your melody. I’ve noticed, both in my own composing, and in others, that deliberately thinking about and mastering the rhythmic aspect, separate from the line, can lead to very interesting consequences. This is because when you free yourself from the notes, and just worry about the rhythm, you free a large portion your concentration, to do something unique.
I suggest you try an experiment. I want you to take a look at something you’ve composed, where you weren’t deliberately thinking about the rhythm. Look at the melody and in particular, look at the rhythm. Chances are, it is pretty simple. It probably is mostly quarter notes, with maybe a few 8th notes. Heck, maybe you even threw in a dotted eighth and sixteenth. It’s not wrong, but it doesn’t bring interest on the rhythmic level.
Now, take some time, and compose a rhythm. Any rhythm. But bring in some different aspects. Maybe a triplet. Maybe it is in 5/4 or 7/4, and you have a triplet, 16th notes and a half note. Whatever you put in, challenge yourself to create something interesting, purely on the rhythmic level.
Now add the notes. Make them work together. It is at this level where the composing is truly difficult. This is where you work out the nuance, and this is where geniuses take their time.
Some interesting rhythmic composers.
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
Holst – Jupiter
I’ve always loved the opening horn solo. Pretty interesting rhythmically as well. Notice how he uses rhythms during the intense sections, like the opening, versus how he uses them later on in the more pastoral section around 2:53.
Harmony and melody are siblings. Sometimes they will get along perfectly, sitting in the back of the car playing road trip games. Other times they are yelling and hitting each other, and you have no choice but to turn the car around.
Melody outlines harmony, and harmony dictates melody. It is a difficult conundrum to get around, especially when you are a beginner composer. It helps to have an understanding of functional harmony, and to know all of your chords and their inversions cold.
The truth is, there is nothing wrong with writing your melody to a pre-established chord progression. Every composer has done it. Think I’m lying? Just listen to Mozart and Bach, and you’ll find both use the same chord sequences over and over.
How does melody outline harmony?
For every chord, there are chord tones. The tones that define what the chord is. For instance, tonic in C major, has C, E, and G. If you were to write a melody that hits these notes, particularly on the strong beats in a bar (like 1 and 3 when writing in 4/4 time), then you will outline the harmony.
It goes without saying that you can outline a harmony with a chord line, simply by hitting all the notes of the chord.
Contour is not the same as line. Contour is where we start to move from the microscopic level to the macroscopic level. You are not just concerned with what happens from note to note, but over the entire length of the melody.
It helps here to understand the instrument you are writing for as well as the form of the piece you are writing, which I will talk about in a minute.
Different Levels of Contour
You can think of contour happening on several levels. Your mind picks up on contour within sections as small as a basic idea, and as large as an entire section like an exposition. The overall contour of an entire piece can also be felt, as the general feeling of tension and relaxation.
There are several primary types of contour:
First pitch lower than middle pitch. Middle pitch lower than last pitch.
First pitch higher than middle pitch. Middle pitch higher than final pitch.
First and last pitch higher than middle pitch.
First and last pitch lower than middle pitch.
First, middle, and last pitch, roughly equivalent in range.
You can also combine these contours, as well as nest them. Nesting them means that maybe you have an overall contour of ascending, but the within smaller sections and phrases, the contour may be descending or concave.
One of the clearest examples of contour is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Range has more to do with what you are composing the melody for. Is it for piano which has a huge range? Or is it for trumpet, which limits you to F# below middle C, to about C above the staff. This is very important if you want your melody to fit with the instrument. You don’t just want your melody to be possible to play, you want it to sound like it was actually written with your chosen instrument in mind.
Liszt – Transcendental Etude
Not that easy. In the first few bars, he’s covered just about the entire piano.
This leads to the next aspect.
I find one of the greatest weaknesses of beginning composers is their propensity to write for virtuosos. You would think, by the amount of incredible passages in every beginning composers Piano Concerto No. 1, that they were all writing for Liszt himself.
You should write for someone you know. Find a friend that plays an instrument, and write for them. Go to your school band or orchestra, and offer to write a piece for them. I guarentee the payoff you get from hearing your work played by real people, even people who can barely play their instruments, will be much better than a thousand incredible cadenzas played by Sibelius or Musescore.
Some things to think about in regards to difficulty:
- Key signature. Is it in C major or B# major? Big difference.
- Range and tessiture. Range is the top note to the bottom note, but tessitura is where most of the music happens. The tessitura should be where the instrument sounds the best, and they player can play the longest.
- Speed. Slow is easier most of the time. Fast is harder most of the time. But you don’t want a trumpet player playing a high C for two bars at pianissimo and 40 bpm – it ain’t gonna happen.
- Rhythmic difficulty. Does it have strange rhythms, like septuplets or nontuplets? This could be difficult for a grade 4 or 5 player.
- Length. Is it a 3 minute piece or a 3 hour piece. Think about that poor soul having to play in front of an audience for 3 hours. Painful.
Mozart – Violin Concertino in G
Sorry, these next ones are just funny.
So just keep in mind who you are writing for.
The final aspect of melody writing is form. While you don’t have to write to any traditional form, I implore you to learn and ingrain the traditional forms (like sonata, concerto, and rondo) into what you do. There is nothing wrong with using them, and you will learn a lot about what it takes to develop a long piece of music.
The form dictates when and how you climax your music. You don’t want the most powerful thing to be in the second bar of your exposition. It’s a recipe for boredom.
So learn your musical forms, and your melodies will benefit immensely.
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 23
The Art of Melody
I am writing this in early November of 2013, and as of right now, I am working on an in depth course in melody writing. It will take you through all of these aspect, one by one, and give you the tools necessary to write a good melody.
I am a firm believer that you can be taught to write a good melody. This is because we all have the ability naturally. It is a God given gift. But like all things God has given us, they are not given lightly. You must know how to use them. Just as a carpenter can imagine a beautiful cabinet, but cannot create it until he knows how to use his chisels, planes, and saws, you too must become a craftsman with the tools of melody – Line, Rhythm, Contour, Harmony, Range, Difficulty, and Form.