How do composers think about intervals like minor, major,etc to compose melody?

Eg I know playing major third will invoke happy mood....that is if we play C and then E creates happier environment...but how use combination of minor-major to create melody?

closed as primarily opinion-based by David Bowling, Carl Witthoft, Dom Dec 14 '18 at 4:59

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    Not necessarily. In key C, yes, C>E will sound happy (to some/most?) but that major third interval also occurs in A minor, between 3rd and 5th, and in F major, making a major 7th sound. And used in key E, will produce a not-too-nice augmented sound. So, intervals themselves, while they are notable, need to be in context. – Tim Dec 13 '18 at 12:04
  • This is a duplicate of several closed questions. – Carl Witthoft Dec 13 '18 at 13:14

If you consider only a single interval without musical context, you will find a huge variety of songs and moods to the extent there seems to be no concrete mood for any particular interval. One convenient way to confirm this is to look at a list of songs organized by the first interval of the melody. (Such lists are popular for learning the various intervals.)


Notice the huge variety of songs and moods for each interval!

Minor third: Frosty the Snowman versus Ironman, Black Sabbath!

Major third: Kumbaya versus Swing Low, Sweet Chariot!

Clearly we don't want to simply say minor third = sad, major third = happy.

From an abstract - rather than emotional - point of view an interval can be very important to composing a melody. A particular interval can form a motif used to build a melody. If you want to know more about that try Schoenberg's Fundamentals of Musical Composition.

Back to the emotional and expressive considerations. More music context than a single interval may be needed to convey an emotion, but perhaps not a lot more music. So two notes making a minor third isn't enough, but add two more notes to outline a diminished seventh chord and you will have something that sounds dramatic. Another common thing is changing intervals to change the mode. For example, changing the minor third of a minor chord to a major third and create a sort of uplifting sound. (Notice how that plays with the musical context.) Be aware if you take this kind of mood painting too far, it can sound stereotypical or cliche. You certainly don't want to aim for profundity, but come off sounding cliche.

Some answers say there are 'rules' for writing melody. Sort of. What I have seen mostly comes out of rules for writing a cantus firmus. Those rules are meant to apply to a musical style like Palestrina's. (Music of the Italian Renaissance.) Characteristics of that melodic style can be found in other styles too, but keep in mind the historic origin. Lots of melodic styles don't work like a cantus firmus.

  • Thank you soo much...this is going to help me – user580502 Dec 13 '18 at 19:38

Melody first, analysis second (if at all :-) You KNOW the language - you have ears and a voice! Once you've invented a melody, it might be interesting to dissect the syntax. Ir it might be better to just carry on and invent another one.

Of course, there ARE characteristics of good melodies - returning after a big leap rather than going even further in the same direction, avoiding augmented and diminished intervals - and they have been codified. (But note that almost every song in West Side Story is built round an augmented interval, and they sound just fine!)

I'd get rid of the 'major=happy, minor=sad' idea. It's not very useful.


How do composers think about intervals like minor, major,etc to compose melody?

I guess the answer is: they don't? Not that much at least. Of course each person has it's own style of composition, but based on my experience and people I know, people don't think about the major or minor aspect of each interval while composing. It's either a melodic idea that comes to your mind, or if you already have a harmony you just try to fit the notes into the scale. The situations I think a composer would stop and say "mmm I think I'll use a major third here" is while refining a melody after initial composition, or working on a very specific passage, idk. This is what I think is the general case, but I'm no authority in the matter.

I know playing major third will invoke happy mood

No true. As Tim said in the comments, really depends the context.

but how use combination of minor-major to create melody?

As I tried to say, I think in general nobody creates a melody by consciously combining minor and major intervals. It's more natural (or more abstract) than that!

  • Composers are very aware of the tonal quality of various chords and intervals, as well as the harmony progressions and the effects these can have on the "musical message." – Carl Witthoft Dec 13 '18 at 13:15
  • @CarlWitthoft I didn't say they are not aware. Do you think that the tonal quality of intervals is inspiration for the composition of melodies? – coconochao Dec 13 '18 at 13:19
  • "Inspiration" is not the issue here. The question is how to produce the melody -- and the chord structure underlying same -- that brings out the mood or reaction desired. And yes, composers automatically invoke knowledge of intervals as well as rhythm and dynamics as they write. – Carl Witthoft Dec 13 '18 at 13:26
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    @CarlWitthoft if you say they do this automatically, then you agree with me, that's what I was trying to say. You don't plan a melody over the quality of intervals. – coconochao Dec 13 '18 at 13:40
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    I'm going to vote the answer up because in reality coconochao is right. Composers have melodies in their head or play an instrument and find it. They have learned theory, but with experience they go with instincts. @user580502 You need to listen to a lot of music and understand how the melodies are constructed. Then it will come naturally over time on your instrument. Don't get caught up in theory and prevent yourself from composing something you like. Learn the theory and understand then compose with feeling. – r lo Dec 13 '18 at 19:42

There are well-established 'rules', methods and practical suggestions for the use of various intervals in melodic composition. These cannot be explained properly on a forum since the topic is too extensive and requires some prior understanding of harmony and the melodic 'tendency' of various notes and intervals. Ther are countless good books on the topic.

If you think major keys/intervals mean happy music and minor keys/intervals mean sad music you may need to listen to more Mozart.

  • Okay....where can I learn that rules and other stuff? – user580502 Dec 13 '18 at 17:05
  • @user580502 - You just google 'writing melodies' and start reading. Perhaps 'rules' is the wrong word. There are various factors to consider and tricks to employ and these may be learned easily enough. . – PeterJ Dec 15 '18 at 11:19

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