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Between systems like the circle of fifths, useful tools like the “chord board” (a chart that, if you follow the “rules of the game” allows you to create strong progressions), “standard” progressions, such as La Folia or the “Pachelbel” Progression, pop music clichés like the “50’s” or “doo-wop” progression, “keyboard progression” examples at the end of harmony textbooks, and so forth, there seem to be many cliché (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) chord progressions/harmonies that songwriters can work off of.

I am wondering if there are similar guides/platitudes/clichés/etc. for melodies. The closest thing I’ve seen would be discussions of how to resolve certain chords appropriately, for example:

Resolving seventh chords: 1. FIRST, resolve the seventh of the chord down by step. 2. SECOND, resolve the leading tone

Beyond that, is melody-writing an entirely personal and original process? I am aware that there are some things good melodies have in common. I am sure you are familiar with these as well:

  1. Most good melodies restrict their basic range to no more than an octave-and-a-half.
  2. Most good melodies use repeating elements.
  3. Most good melodies are comprised of stepwise motion (i.e., move by scale steps), with occasional leaps.
  4. Most good melodies have a discernible relationship with the bass line.
  5. Most good melodies have a climactic point

But what I am referring to/asking about is specific melodic events that are consistently strong or that composers tend to revisit time and again, similar to the example of how to resolve dominant seventh chords.

Are you aware of any such popular melodic events? You might call the I-IV-V harmony “iconic and ubiquitous”, for example. Can you describe any specific melodic lines in the same fashion?

This would be very helpful for me as a composer because, similar to how I rely on “winning” chord progressions before I can alter chords, adding extensions, passing chords, inversions, etc, it would be nice to have a sense of what melodic “paradigm” I should work with before trying to alter the rhythm, leaps, steps, etc. I suppose that’s the problem . . . I get overwhelmed by all the different aspects of melody-writing. Anyway, I’m rambling . . . thank you for listening!!

Please note: I am referring to the major (Ionian) scale for this question

  • You might want to change your title to something like "standard or fundamental melodic patterns." – Michael Curtis Jan 10 at 22:46
  • I'd have to warn that any common enough melodic pattern gets pointed out as a cliche (if it's old enough to be in the public domain--e.g. the Arabian riff, BACH, and even the Dies Irae) or gets copyright protection before it reaches that point. (One of the most common exceptions to the latter I've heard is music that resembles Ridley's theme from the Metroid series. Even then, I've read comments on non-Metroid music YouTube videos a la "Ridley called; he wants his theme back" quite a lot.) – Dekkadeci Jan 11 at 13:47
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I am wondering if there are similar guides/platitudes/clichés/etc. for melodies.

Yes.

They may not be interesting to see when written out as abstractions. But patterns like...

  • ^3 ^2 ^1
  • ^1 ^5 ^6 ^5
  • ^1 ^6 ^2 ^1

...are common melodic segments. (The numbers mean "scale degree", so ^1 is the first scale degree, the tonic, or DO is solfege.) Each is just a part of the major pentatonic scale. I've heard them a lot in pop songs.

There is a book called Music in the Galant Style which is entirely about schemata used in early classical music. Each schema involves short harmonic/counterpoint frameworks some of which are especially about particular melodic segements...

  • ^6 ^5 ^4 ^3 is called a Prinner
  • ^3 ^2 ^4 ^3 is called a Pastorale
  • ^7 ^1 ^2 ^3 is part of a Fenaroli

...with many othere schema. Most of those names were coined by the author for the book.

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  • That’s what I wanted to ask too for a longtime – Albrecht Hügli Jan 11 at 6:39
  • +1 for Gjerdingen, but I'd emphasize the fact that these are "harmonic/contrapuntal frameworks" which generally utilize a melody and a bass line (and often somewhat specific harmonic choices for other voices). Without the other voices, most of Gjerdingen's melodic patterns sort of reduce to "end stuff on scale degree 1 or 3, particularly when moving by semitone" (with a few exceptions for half cadence schemata). – Athanasius Jan 11 at 17:01
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One ambiguity in the question seems to be whether the examples of Pachelbel et al. are harmonic progressions vs. melodic bass lines. Historically, many of these riffs were thought of primarily within a melodic framework as a bass line, with only some general trends for harmonization. I'd say that continues today, as bass line patterns like descending scalar lines, the "Doo-wop" bass line, etc. are frequently harmonized in several different ways. It's often the melodic strength of the bass line (e.g., stepwise motion, sequential patterns, etc.) that carries the pattern forward. See, for example, the entire musical of Les Miserables, which seems mostly to be based on a descending bass line. (Yes, that's an exaggeration, but it occurs, with variations, as a motive in a large number of songs from the show.)

And, from that respect, "melodic" patterns like resolving the leading tone and resolving the seventh of a seventh chord are just stuff that happens in any voice. It could be the "melody," but it could also be the bass line or even an inner voice. Try playing a dominant seventh chord in inversion with the third of the chord in the bass -- it's a leading tone that wants to go up. Try putting the seventh in the bass, and it's a seventh that wants to go down. It doesn't matter whether these are in the "melody" or not.

Once one defines "melodic" motion that broadly, then I think we're not really talking about "melody" anymore, but rather something like fundamental aspects of the mode or key. Both major and minor modes tend to resolve the leading tone. The 4-3 motion in the melody is also important around the dominant seventh and sometimes in other contexts (where the semitone motion creates a sense of resolution). Similarly, in minor mode, one frequently sees 5-6-5 motions in some voice due to the strong tendency of the semitone to resolve back down to scale degree 5.

These aren't "melodic" patterns as much as they are mode-defining aspects of how to use the basic scale.

The next stage up from those is to see how such conventional motions combine to form stuff like Gjerdingen's schemata (as mentioned in Michael Curtis's answer). I don't know that Gjerdingen's patterns are all universally applicable: to me, they really define certain patterns that were standard for certain times in historical common-practice music. Just as Indian scales (raga) have certain longer melodic patterns, so the 18th-century classical style had certain patterns that might be a few notes long and defined the use of the major and minor scales in that style. Some of those have survived and are still part of certain styles today; others are really mostly applicable to older ("classical") styles and modern ones that sometimes imitate those.

But at their heart, many of Gjerdingen's patterns are really just the mode-defining (frequently semitone) motions I mentioned above, often with another voice tacked on above or below to create good counterpoint. Also, it should be noted that what Gjerdingen (and other music theorists who look for such patterns) was after was a sort of underlying framework for the overall counterpoint, not a framework for writing a "good melody." Heinrich Schenker proposed a theory that basically all tonal musical melodies (and even entire movements of symphonies) can be reduced to 3-2-1 (or, as I often think of it, to "Three Blind Mice"). His idea is that one can take that simple descending scale and "elaborate" it by introducing progressively more notes in-between those three notes to create an entire piece of music. The idea is roughly based on so-called "diminution" concepts of elaborating melodies with more and more ornaments at smaller note values, but it's not really a practical way to write a decent melody.

So, when Gjerdingen writes that a "Prinner" is 6-5-4-3, he doesn't literally mean those four notes in succession (though that sometimes happens). Those notes could each be separated by a measure or more from each other, with a bunch of melody happening in-between. I'm not sure that's what OP was after in the question, though it could be part of a framework for constructing a melody in some circumstances.

Anyhow, the reason I don't think there are many standard "melodic patterns" beyond the basic mode-defining motions I mentioned already is that repetitive melodies are often viewed boring. Bass lines can often be cycled and repeated again and again with lots of variations over top of them, but repeating a melody often involves variation within the melody itself. Borrowing more than a couple bars of an existing melody is often heard as a "reference" (or perhaps a "variation") rather than the basis for a new composition. As noted above, specific styles may have common melodic riffs, but it's difficult to give any broad guidance for constructing melody using "standard patterns."

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In the Gregorian chant there are terms for the 5th (and 6th) in modes like tenor or repercussion tone, and finalis. All neumes can be considered as melodic clichés or elements.

in the baroque era until today we have the Ruggiero 1231-4564 ... (walking bass) or the Alberti bass patterns (all kind of triads).

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My main instrument is guitar and early on I learned about playing scales over chords, but then I found an old out of print book "Modern Improvising" by Leon White that has a listing of 115 different melodic patterns, exercises to help a guitar player create melody lines instantly while improvising. In my own situation, I started doing these exercises and soon enough I could hear in my head different ways to create melodies and guitar parts over a chord progression as it was being played. Although this book was written for guitar players, I can't help but think the same exercises could be used by other instrumentalists to achieve the same results. My suggestion would be to start a search based on the topic "Melodic Patterns" and see what you can come up with, either online or at the library.

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  • 1
    great advice--thank you! – 286642 Jan 11 at 21:35

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