The hardest part of composing is staring at a blank page. It is easy to get caught up in the nothingness and find yourself completely out of ideas. So here are a few tips for generating melodic ideas.
One of my favorite techniques is called Phrase Storming. Basically you try and write out as many two bar basic ideas as possible in a set amount of time. It could be 5 minutes, or 10 minutes, or longer. There are a few things going on here that make it easier to compose:
- You only have to write two bars at a time. This means the pressure of having to create a long composition is gone.
- You are under the clock. Giving yourself a time limit always spurs some extra creativity. Like a good procrastinator always says, “If you wait till the last minute, it only takes a minute.”
- If you write something that sucks, it doesn’t matter. You can just throw it away, because you’ll have many more ideas to choose from.
I recommend phrase storming on a regular basis. I also recommend keeping the pages that you use to phrase storm, as they are like little banks of melodic ideas.
Some helpful tips for phrase storming:
- Try composing in different key signatures and different time signatures for each basic idea. Variety is the spice of life.
- Try composing in the same key and time signature for each idea. You will easily be able to see the contrast.
- Set a time limit. Stick to it. Use your phone, and choose a very scary alarm that will shock you when you hear it. Its better that way.
- Compose as fast as you can. This is also an exercise in will power, as you must force yourself to write. If you find that you’ve gone a minute without writing at least three ideas, then you are wrong!
- Once you have reached your limit, choose your favorite basic ideas, and turn them into a theme. From there, you’ll know what to do.
Take those phrase stormed melodic ideas, and manipulate them. Turn them over (inversion) and around (retrograde). Change the underlying harmony. Expand them and contract them. Cut them up. By the end you’ll have a ton of ideas.
Remember, there is no hard and fast rule that you have to stick with the exact interval pattern or time values. If you find that a retrograde sounds good, except for one note, change that note. Its okay. This is just harmony – not eHarmony. Get it!
Separate Out the Elements
Put your focus on one aspect at a time. For instance, you could just pick a few interesting intervals. Follow up that with composing a unique rhythmic pattern, and then fit those intervals into the rhythmic pattern. Finally fill out the rest of the melody by connecting those intervals while making sure it follows your chosen chord progression.
Just think, one step at a time.
There is nothing wrong with using standard chord progressions. Come on, everyone is doing it…
Pick a good chord progression, and then outline the key notes within that progression that are important for the harmony. Find the thirds, and sevenths, and connect the dots.
Try to create an overall contour for your melody by first placing those key notes throughout the entire melody. A very common one is an overall descending scale starting from tonic and leading to tonic down an octave.
Find Ideas In Nature
If you’ve ever listened to nature for a while, you will start to realize that everything is a melody. The obvious one is a bird song, which generally follows the same melodic pattern over and over. But I am sure there are other great animals to pick from out there. If you are not close to nature, then here is a good resource for you.
This one is a little on the lighter side. I find 3:22 to be particularly inspirational (make sure your volume is not very high).
Your Mission Should You Choose to Accept It: Variations on a Theme
Choose a melody that you really like and write several variations. You don’t have to choose a really long one, but you will have to understand it by analysis. You will not be the first to do this.
Bach – Goldberg Variations
Beethoven – Diabelli Variations
Elgar – Enigma Variations
Rachmaninov – Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini
With themes and variations, you are forced to really vary the melodic content, because you are more locked into the harmony and form than anything else.
If you have any other ideas, feel free to share them.