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I composed the following melody using notes from the C major scale. In the third bar a G# (Ab) seemed a natural choice to complete the loop, but I don’t understand why.

G# is not in C major nor its relative minor scale Am. It is one semitone down from A, so it seems to lead back to the Am scale naturally. What is the reason?

Edit : Here is the corrected cleaned up score

[![Original melody][1]][1]

Corrected scoreenter image description here

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  • 8
    One little off-topic observation: the first three measures have 4.5 beats in them (four eighth notes = two beats; one half note = two beats; plus one 8th note). If you changed the half note to a dotted quarter (1.5 beats) it would fit nicely. Sep 12 at 16:05
  • 1
    Thanks Andy, what you suggest sounds more correct. Here is a recording of what I was trying to transcribe. I was in a dilemma in that I wanted the half note to play to the end of the bar but I needed the eighth note to play on the « 3and ». If I understand correctly, notes are always sequential so it is impossible to overlay the eight note, I must instead shorten the half note. soundcloud.app.goo.gl/bkCQXSyM6dzSg1Tn6 Sep 12 at 18:14
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    Yeah, the recording perfectly uses dotted quarter notes. If you sing along with it, "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and," you'll find that the F in the first bar occupies "3 and 4," and then the D 8th note takes up the "and" that comes after "4." Sep 12 at 19:08
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    Another little off-topic nitpick: if a note has its stem (the vertical line) pointing down, the stem is on the left and the head (the dot) is on the right, like the first four notes. The other way looks a bit awkward. (You also don't need to repeat the sharp in the last measure — those signs work up to the end of the measure.)
    – Ramillies
    Sep 14 at 7:33
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    @Ramillies - I'm sure some notable (sic) composers preferred OP's way as well.
    – Tim
    Sep 14 at 14:09
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I would argue that your melody may not be in C major at all. C major and A natural minor share the same pitches, and your melody is constructed precisely in such a way that it can exist both in C major and in A minor!

You might think, "Well, the first measure emphasizes C and E, which are both members of the C-major tonic triad." But they're also the third and fifth of A minor! So depending on the harmonic accompaniment you create, your melody may be in A minor the whole time.

The G♯ is the leading tone of A minor; it's what helps clarify A as tonic, whereas the G♮ (what we call the "subtonic") lacks the same kind of pull upwards towards tonic. The use of a raised scale-degree 7 to create the leading tone is very common in minor keys.

Lastly, I'd recommend you doublecheck some of your rhythms. Your half notes in each measure technically create measures of nine eighth notes; these should probably be dotted-quarter notes instead.

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  • I agree 100%. To me, it certainly feels like Am the whole way through. In the first bar, an Am to Dm transition would be a more natural harmony than a C to F transition. Sep 15 at 5:59
  • It feels like Am because of the last measure. Changing G# in G♮ and ending in C rather than A makes a perfect fit for C-major.
    – Jack
    Sep 15 at 12:36
  • @DawoodibnKareem to me, it sounded like C major the first time through until I got to the end of the next-to-last measure. After that, the beginning seems like A minor, also, but depending on what else happens in the piece it could indeed be melody in C major with an intermediate cadence in the relative minor. If you use G naturals and change the last note to C, and then play through that a couple of times, do you still think of the first couple of bars in A minor? Context matters.
    – phoog
    Sep 15 at 13:47
  • Yeah, I can't bring myself to put anything other than Dm in the left hand for the second half of bar 1. If I make the change that you (@phoog) suggested, it feels like it's modulating from Am to C. I'm wondering whether it's because this melody reminds me of some other piece of music that I can't actually place. Sep 15 at 20:21
  • @DawoodibnKareem ok, but that D minor chord doesn't stop it from being in C major: C Dm G(7) C ....
    – phoog
    Sep 15 at 20:50
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You started in key C major, and you've modulated into key Am, its relative minor. True, there's no G♯ note in key C major, but key A minor has three slightly different incarnations, when written in scalar form, two of which actually do have that G♯.

Those notes just before the last note, A, all work with the chord E, which most times in music will lead to A. It's called the dominant of A, and sounds more convincing with that G♯ rather than G♮ to point the way to A. Play it with G♮, and it doesn't sound anywhere near as good, does it?

Don't be fooled, as so many are (and I was!) into believing a piece in a particular key will only contain notes from the scale of that key. true, pieces will be 'safer' when that happens, but can become quite banal. By using notes out of the key, colour is added. Thus those notes are called chromatic - funnily enough having a close connection to colour...

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    Thank you Richard,Aaron and Tim for your comments. It took me a while to process. I now understand that my melody works because I was using a leading tone, the G# of harmonic minor scale of A to return to the tonic of Am. I went through all major and minor scales and it seems the 7th is a leading tone (1 semitone below the tonic) in ALL major scales, but in NONE of the natural minor scales, and so requires using the harmonic or melodic minor scales to obtain a leading tone. Sep 12 at 20:04
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    It seems that with the right harmonization, this could be entirely in A minor.
    – Theodore
    Sep 13 at 12:53
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    @Theodore - ye, it could be easily. We won't really know until the last bar gets written - and my money's on key C!
    – Tim
    Sep 13 at 12:59
  • Does one really say "modulate" between a key and its relative minor? (Genuine ignorance on my part.) Interesting. Sep 14 at 10:49
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    @LukeSawczak - I do! C major and A minor are different keys, even if they (often) use the same notes, so yes, modulate.
    – Tim
    Sep 14 at 14:04
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Although A minor does not natively include G#, it is common practice to use G#, because it is the leading tone in A minor (and major). That is, it "leads" the ear to A, just as you've described.

This idea is also discussed in When to deviate from scale?

Technically, what you've composed is called a sequence, a pattern of sounds that is repeated on different pitches. In this case, your pattern modulates (changes key) to A minor. So even though the song itself is in C major, it is visiting another key, which is just fine.

Sequences of the type in your composition are discussed in How are melodic sequences used?

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I'm a newbie at this stuff but I'll take a crack at explaining why it sounds good to me. I think we can simplify the melody by reducing the n,n+1,n+2,n eighth notes (like C D E C) patterns to the first note n and removing the trailing eighth notes; brief or unrepeated notes make less of an impression. So then we're left with C F|B E|A D|G# A. We can break this down into adjacent pairs to look at harmony and dissonance:

C  F  perfect 4th
F  B  tritone (dissonant)
B  E  perfect 4th (resolution)
E  A  perfect 5th
A  D  perfect 4th
D  G# tritone (dissonant)
G# A  semitone back to A (resolution, D was not long ago)

So the adjacent pairs were seesawing back and forth between dissonance and harmony.

You could have made this more of a C scale if you had continued the pattern C F|B E|A D|G C, but play it out and it feels like it's too quick and less interesting without the G# dissonance and the resolution.

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Quick, general answer: Because chromatic notes and chords are a thing. A very commonly-used thing. You don't have to stay in the scale.

Longer answer, more specific to this instance: You have fallen into the trap of assuming that the 'Natural minor' scale is the ONLY form of minor scale.

Until quite recently, standard teaching was that the Harmonic minor scale was the norm, sometimes modified into the Melodic minor. But they both used the sharpened leading note when ascending, which enabled a major dominant chord, a central feature of Common Practice harmony. (If Harmonic minor, Melodic minor mean nothing to you, there are plenty of online resources for basic theory, I won't try to spell it all out here.) In fact, when trying to determine whether a piece had strayed into the relative minor key, the rule of thumb was 'spot the sharpened 7th'. When a piece that starts in C major starts getting G sharps, that's a pretty good clue that we might be visiting A minor.

The Natural minor scale, with its flat 7th note, was a poor relation, mostly found in folk music. Natural, with its modal flat 7ths and lack of proper dominant chords only suited folk songs. Don't get annoyed, but there's a certain truth in that. A musical form longer than a simple song ("all you can do with a folk song is play it again, louder") will probably use different keys as a structural device. And you get to new keys through dominant-tonic relationships.

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  • 1
    Modes - Ionian and Aeolian, may be worth a mention here.
    – Tim
    Sep 14 at 14:06
  • By "poor relation" do you mean "indigent cousin" (a class distinction) or "inferior version" (a quality distinction) or both?
    – Theodore
    Sep 15 at 14:22
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    @Theodore I didn't really analyse the words that closely! But see my extended answer. Sep 15 at 16:50
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Your melody's inherrent harmony (the one you imagine when you hear it) is C F | G C | a d | E a (lowercase indicates minor chord)

This is more natural than having e a in the end, which would not have nearly as strong of a gravity towards the final note. You can also try A d | E a (i.e. using c# in bar 3), it will get yet a different feel, and whoa, you'll use c# in a piece in C major / a minor!

The bit is actually we well thought out -- not sure if it's an intention or a coincidece, the piece is just an ornamentation of c f | b e | a d | g# a, so bar 1 doesn't have a leading note, meaning the resolution of C > F is not as strong as in bar 2 where a third is used (b), but it's not properly resolved to a tonic (it should be resolved to c not e). Then the second part is the same motif, just in the parallel tonality and properly resolved to the tonic. Very cool!

Also, while bars 1 and 3 don't have as strong of a lead, they still contain the third of the dominant in the ornamentation, giving quite a hint!

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  • The harmony you suggest initially does work, but I don't think you could call it inherent*. I could just as easily hear: a G | E a | F d | E7 a
    – Theodore
    Sep 15 at 16:57
  • @Theodore You could in theory, but the longer you'll keep deciding which one is more natural, the more you'll lean towards the variant with V > I for bar 1. And for bar 2, yes, if the whole second part wasn't a third lower and if you didn't mind having the leading voice lead to a fifth without ever seeing the first or third, then yes, you can surely see it that way. The point is: you can find many harmonies that fit a certain piece of melody or explain it, but not all of them will sound equally natural.
    – yo'
    Sep 20 at 12:17
  • You can equally explain the last bar as E75-/Bb a and you'll get a nice (and somewhat baroque) explanation of having that piece with g instead g# by borrowing something from the phrygian mode. Or if you like, you can change the harmony completely, use g a bb g a and consider C7 F as the underlying harmony. The possibilities are plenty, but the question is about explaining why g# a b g# a "feel the best", and that's what I do.
    – yo'
    Sep 20 at 12:21
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    I think you missed my point, which maybe is more clearly stated as: The preference for a dominant - tonic resolution in harmony is culturally-conditioned and not inherent to a melody (even one so obviously within the realm of common practice).
    – Theodore
    Sep 20 at 13:48
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    @Theodore You're free to assume that it's conditioned, but I don't agree with that assumption :-) But it's good to know that this is the point of disagreement as I was slightly unsure what you meant by your comment. Now it's clearer...
    – yo'
    Sep 20 at 14:37

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