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I'm back with a more specific question. I read in a book entitled 'Complete Idiots Guide for Music Composition' which has a detailed discussion on writing melodies and techniques to do so. As I have been struggling quite a bit, I looked into it and found about stable (1, 5, 3) and unstable tones (6, 2, 4, 7).

I started looking into melodies that I've transcribed and found a few common themes such as: -7th degree always resolves to the 1st, 3rd or 5th degree of the scale -4th is most commonly resolved to 5th -The melody can end on a 2nd or 6th degree without too much tension

I wanted to know if this is something that composers start thinking about when making melodies? I suppose this would be playing by ear to what sounds good but it's helpful to know as a beginner to help out with writing my own melodies - can anyone expand on the topic or give ideas on how I can utilise this information further to improve my own melodies?

  • I think this is a good question but it may not be a good fit for this site, as it would not lend itself to specific, concise answers, and that's what we go for here. – user1044 Aug 11 '15 at 2:16
  • Hey thanks, sorry for that. I'll try to narrow my questions down I have a few that are all related – MJohnson52 Aug 11 '15 at 8:41
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You will find that melodies that are "pleasingly consistent to genre" tend to also follow the "rules" of composition. The rules are empirically derived: meaning that they were derived from common practice, instead of common practice being derived from the rules.

It is a very good practise to come up with a pleasing melody, then transcribe it, and review the transcription to see what sort of patterns arise, and use those as you move forward.

If you're writing a melody for lyrics, it's useful to annotate the lyrics with respect to "stable" words and "transitioning" words, important words vs unimportant words, action and increasing emotion vs resolution and decreasing emotion...and attempt a melody line that corresponds in general shape. When you have a good melody for a lyric, it sounds almost conversational, easy, unforced.

  • I've found it useful to transcribe then look at the notes and how they are being used. Whilst there are no hard and fast rules with melodies, I have picked up on the tension and resolution idea. Unfortunately, I wish there was a handbook for writing melodies but doesn't seem to be. I have no idea how to get better other than playing other people's music and trying to learn from it – MJohnson52 Aug 11 '15 at 8:43
  • @MJohnson52, there is no real other way than that. Play a lot of music, read a lot of music, listen to a lot of music. The idea of tension and release is relative enough and context-dependent enough that, as you say, there really aren't any hard and fast rules. What is a tension in a tonal context might well be a release in a modal context, and so forth. – user16935 Aug 11 '15 at 16:08
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If you're a beginner composer, I do not recommend thinking about these things while composing. Music Theory is very important to learn, but more often than not, breaking the rules can sound great and lead to very interesting compositions. However, to break the rules, you should first know the rules.

I suggest if you're just getting started with composing music, study as much music theory as possible, and try to apply what you're learning to your writing. But, don't feel as if you can't deviate from the rules. If you follow the rules too closely your compositions will probably sound mechanical, generic, and predictable. Pick out a couple of standard chord progressions like I,IV,V or ii,V,I and write pieces to those chord progressions. Sticking to a chord progression will help give your composition some boundaries and then experiment with your melodies there. Utilize the unstable notes and see what makes them sound unstable to you, and if you can come up with different ways to resolve them that sounds pleasant to you.

The rules a great, learn them, but don't follow them so closely that you eliminate creativity.

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I started looking into melodies that I've transcribed and found a few common themes such as: -7th degree always resolves to the 1st, 3rd or 5th degree of the scale -4th is most commonly resolved to 5th -The melody can end on a 2nd or 6th degree without too much tension

You should certainly be thinking about things like that, so long as you approach the issue in the right way.

The wrong way is to find a book that contains some "rules", and blindly try to follow them.

The right way, as with everything about making music except for the technique of physically playing an instrument, is: use your ears. If you ears tell you the "rules in the book" don't make sense, trust your ears and throw away the book.

  • +1 for this. The "Muse" part of "Music" is the enjoyable bit that shines through. Conversely, I wonder whether anyone has written a melody based purely on what's statistically been done inthe past ? – user2808054 Aug 13 '15 at 11:47
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According to classic harmony, the top-line melody (or soprano's voice) must start with the basic, 3rd or 5th note. For example, in C major scale the melody must start with the C, E, or G note.

The tension comes from an unstable chord, such as V (which includes the 7th note) and we need to hear some release (I chord for example which includes the basic note). For example in C major scale, V is the G chord (G, B, D notes). B is the 7th note in this scale.

The song must end with the basic note. If we play on C major scale, we must end the song with the C note.

This is what composers think first, before start writing anything else. For the spaces in-between, you can write anything sounds good to you and fits the genre you are writing. Have in mind that harmony and music theory studies will help you in ways I cannot explain and you cannot imagine.

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I like a rather old (early 1900s) book on melodic writing. Percy Goetschius, https://archive.org/details/exercisesinmelo00goetgoog/page/n9 (Exercises in Melody Writing). It's full of reasonable suggestions. Goetschius goes into stepwise melodies, arpeggios, passing tones, neighbor tones, changing keys, changing modes, rhythmic stuff and phrase structure. The book does have the big advantage of being free.

What I like about this book (and other more modern books) is not that the present "rules to be followed" rather they present "suggestions you might like." The author starts with simple "rules" (ascending and descending scales) and then proceeds to add suggestions like leaps of a third, large leaps, chromatic alterations, etc.

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