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I've posted this question:

Learning to create melodies

I've got a few ideas of techniques towards creating melodies but wanted to ask if there are any specific methods to help get better. I've read: The Complete's Idiot's Guide To Music Composition which explained a lot of details but I still find it difficult to create something 'good', whenever I play on my keyboard, it sounds rubbish. Is it something that comes with ample practice? What can I do to become better?

  • Kent Kennan's Counterpoint has a good categorization of various types of melodies. While it doesn't tell you how to write them per say, its lessons help you shape your melodies and phrases. – Ely Beau Eastman Aug 21 '14 at 21:12
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In my experience, unfortunately, writing melodies is one of the most "magical" parts of writing music. Some melodies just sound great, some just don't. There are, however, a few things to keep in mind that can help you deliberately write a melody for a particular emotion or style and help you understand why a particular melody sounds good.

Intervallic and Stepwise Motion:
Some melodies have large jumps in-between consecutive notes, and others move up or down consecutive notes in a scale. The former usually sounds more grand, especially with slow rhythms, and the latter, smoother.

Rising and Falling Motion:
Whether the notes in a melody generally get higher, get lower, or stay in the same range can have a big effect on the melody's emotion.

Rhythm:
The melody you pick for a rhythm makes a huge difference. Is it syncopated or straight? Fast or slow? Complex or simple? Does it use distinctive tricks like hemiola or tuplets? What beats does it start and end on?

Instrumentation:
In my experience, the instrument playing a melody makes a big difference. In the EDM track The End, the main melody is played by a number of bold, powerful synths, giving the melody a driving emotion. Then, at the end of the song, a lone acoustic guitar plays the same melody, which suddenly becomes very sad.

Major/Minor Quality:
Of course, whether a melody is written in a major or minor key makes a big difference.

And the list can go on forever: tonal center, articulation, etc. The important thing isn't that every melody can be broken apart like this. Instead, you can pick out a few qualities you know you would like a melody to have based on which emotion you want to portray.

For example, perhaps you need to write the leitmotif for the bad guy. It's probably going to be in a minor key, because he's so evil. Likewise, it might be played in a lower register on an instrument like a bassoon, not on a lighter instrument like a flute. And although the motif will be centered around a particular key, it might use a lot of chromatic, dissonant notes. You can play with all the other attributes of a melody while you try to figure out what you're ultimately going to go with, but starting with a plan like this makes it easier to begin writing a melody.

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Sometimes just singing over a chord progression can do wonders. However a melody that sounds 'good' on vocals may flub on the keyboard (or other instruments).

Try changing the chords under the melody - sometimes its easy to dismiss a decent melody because it wasn't in a very good context (chord substitution is a great way to go here).

Try to identify what the problem is - does it sound to plain/simple/predictable? If so, maybe revisit chord substitution or mess with some rhythmic displacement. For example, lets say I have two measures in the key of C:

| G | C |

With a quarter note melody

| B C D B | C - - - |

Maybe I would want to throw an extra 'D' note into the second measure

| B C D B | D C - -|

to add a little extra dissonance - the second bar's melody doesn't immediately catch up with the chord change. It waits a beat and adds a little bit of unpredictability. This example is rather simple but it's little things like this that can make or break a melody.

Also, check out your performance of the melody. Are you playing it with emotion? Or, more importantly, are you playing it with dynamics?

Does your melody go anywhere? Is there a conversation implied such as a call and response?

Maybe let your melody hang out on a weird note for a second - something a little unsettling.

Look for motif's (repeating ideas) - a great example of a motif is Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca. It exhibits a rhythmic motive (buh-da-buh-da-BAAH REST buh-da-buh-da-BAAH REST) and then goes on to build on that motive (buh-da-buh-da-buh-da-buh-da-buh-da-buh-da-BAAH REST!). While this is happening there is also a melodic motive that dances around chord tones and jumps up to the next chord tone (in A minor - B A G# A C REST! D C B C E REST)

This may not be in your genre but take some hints from the man himself!

Finally, and this is probably the biggest because every other 'hint' or 'trick' to writing good melodies comes from this, LISTEN TO GOOD MELODIES and figure out what makes them good. Is there that one note that just gets you going? Does the bridge (or B section or chorus or whatever you want to call it) take the listener to a different place? Is it catchy? If so, why? Does it haunt you (Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique for example)?

OK, FINALLY finally (for real this time) experience is invaluable. Just keep at it and don't try to write the perfect song right here, right now. The more you write and put into your portfolio, the stronger you will be. Go back and revisit earlier works and you might be surprised how much you like them.

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Melody in Songwriting, by Jack Perricone. It's the first thing I've seen that makes explicit all the things I was (usually) doing unconsciously.

  • Is it similar to Michael Miller - Complete idiot's guide to music composition? – MJohnson52 Aug 31 '14 at 12:36
  • I haven't read that, but reading the descriptions of it on Amazon, I'd say that Perricone is probably more melody-specific and probably goes deeper--that is, where Miller offers brief descriptions of techniques, Perricone talks about each one for a while, gives examples, exercises, etc. But again I haven't read Miller so that's just a guess. – Joel Derfner Sep 1 '14 at 13:13
  • Will try to get it, from the contents page it seems quite similar to the book I mentioned which dedicates 5 chapters to melody writing. I'm just always looking for more information. Another question I have, is that since this information is something some people unconsciously learn, how would I use it to become a better melody writer specifically? Does practicing other songs help with that? – MJohnson52 Sep 3 '14 at 9:26
  • I think what'll happen is that you'll start to notice the way melodies you hear (in songs you like, on the radio, as background music) are put together, and you'll start to develop a stronger sense of technique. And instead of having to sit and say, gee, should I use this technique in this part of the melody I'm writing or that technique, you'll start to be able to say, oh, songs I like tend to use such-and-such a technique in this part of their melodies, so I'll try that. And so on. So I think that the more you LISTEN to songs you like, the easier it'll become. – Joel Derfner Sep 4 '14 at 11:20
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Two books:

Exercises in Melody-Writing. by Percy Goetschius.

The Study of Counterpoint. by Johann Joseph Fux (translated by Alfred Mann)

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You don't write melodies. You only find them.

In my experience, setting out to logically create music does not work very well. I am a very logical, mathematically-minded person, but I try to write music from the emotional part of my brain. Good music stirs the emotions; creating music should come from the soul!

When I write a song, I play my guitar and start searching for the melody (or melodies) hidden within. Michelangelo is purported to have said that the sculpture already exists within the stone; the sculptor's job is simply to free it. I feel finding a melody is much the same.

One way you might do that is to record a simple chord progression (3 or 4 chords) and let it play back in an endless loop. Improvise over the top, trying to remember the bits you liked and immediately forgetting what sounded like rubbish. Here, you want to try and turn off the logical part of your brain and instead use the mystical part of your being (whatever your tradition would call it).

One "trick" I want to pass on is the melody sounds good when it moves opposite from the bass line. If the chord progression is heading down, especially with passing notes, try a melody that moves up. It should sound pretty good!

Mostly, though, I would suggest you study the artists that create the melodies that move you. Is it the Beatles? The Beach Boys? Beethoven or Bach?

Never give up. Keep working at your craft! I have found it takes a long time to mature as a songwriter. And remember: it only has to make you happy, no one else.

Good luck!

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I would argue that learning all techniques and modes and theory will not really help you develop melodies. There are great writers out there that don't even know the names of the notes they are playing. Sometimes too much information can be crippling. Having said that I would urge you to do a few things that may help.

The first is to listen more. Take some time to really immerse yourself in listening to some of your favorite music. Creativity is not all internal, it is a feed back loop process. You feeding back to the world (to yourself first) after being stimulated by the external world.

Next, if you know a little about western music theory, sight reading, or have a good ear, start dissecting the music you listen to. Look for patterns that are repeated. Sometimes a melody can be one or two notes. The rhythm is really key to making a distinct melody. As an example Joy To The World is just the descending major scale! Do, Ti, La, Sol, Fa, Mi, Ray, Do. It's the rhythm that makes is a melody. I like playing that same rhythm in Harmonic minor as a joke. Like turning a Christmas song into some type of heavy metal satanic anthem.

Third, I would try constructing simple motifs. These are riffs or licks that can be a few notes. In Jazz Improv it is often taught as a method of building a musical vocabulary. This applies to song writing as well. Try getting a riff you like that is original. The trick is to learn how to milk the riff to get mileage from it. This touches upon classical techniques of movement through the I, IV, and V, as well as changing key, and from Major to Minor, and the use of embellishments to modify the riff without completely losing the character.

With this you can start to build longer elaborate melodies with a specific character.

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I will not read all the above comments because they are waaay too long. Simple solution: learn modes, you will have way more room to write music. As for rhythm, you could watch Paul Gilbert's tutorial. It is for guitar, but can be applied for piano as well.

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