Composing a good melody
Regarding original music composition across most musical genres, there are two main methodologies that composers usually choose to follow: harmonic composition and melodic composition. Typically, a composer is more gifted at either one of these methods. Following harmonic composition, the composer will first decide on the chord progression, and the melody will follow subsequently. This is probably the ‘easier’ of the work ways, as there are limitless successful chord progressions that one can source, reference to or follow, which have already been established in specific musical genres. When following harmonic composition, you don’t have to ‘reinvent’ the musical wheel - if you want to compose a 12-bar blues, for example, the chord progression is already given. Your challenge as composer lies more with choosing the instrumentation and voice-leading within the chord progression.
Melodic composition, on the other hand, proves to be much trickier. There are certain rules and methods that you can follow, but in my opinion melodic composition is a more inherent ‘talent’. Practicing your overall musicality, starting to play an instrument, working on theory and aural training, and listening and analyzing different musical genres can all positively contribute in gaining inspiration in this regard.
It you are not a ‘natural’ composer of melodies, there are nevertheless a few tips and tricks that can guarantee success to a certain level.
- Stay within the range and technical ability of the instrument and artist that you are writing for. When programming for unfamiliar instruments, make sure you research how they produce sound, playing techniques and what is possible on the specific instrument.
- Get inspiration for a melody from your chord progression by working around the main chord notes. With the almost limitless amount of available chord progressions and extended chords to research and use, there is never a valid excuse for selecting a weak harmonic progression as starting point.
- Play / program the chord progression with good voice leading, fitting to your chosen genre, and a melody could manifest from this exercise. In many cases, the melody would develop from one of the horizontal lines in the 4-part harmony.
- Listen to your favourite artist and genre. Analyze their use of melody; get a midi-file or score sheet of the song’s melody and chords and try and find what made the melody good and memorable. Most successful composers and songwriters did this to their favourite artists and genres before, and learned writing techniques from analyzing ‘good’ music.
- Work at a good motif to base your melody on. Employ interesting rhythm, syncopation, intervals, and patterns. A creative and interesting motif can be the basis of your whole composition.
- Create and dissolve tension in your melody. You can play around with harmonic tension, for example ending a phrase on chords 2/5/6 in the sequence, and dissolving the tension to the tonic chord in final bars. Melodic tension is also a great tool – letting a phrase delay on a 2nd, 7th, non-chordal or chromatic note will create anticipation for a tonic resolve.
- Use repetition – in pitch and rhythm. When you analyze the most memorable melodies even written, you will find that the composers actually only used a few excellent ideas / short motif, and repeated them throughout the composition, using variation and other techniques. There are numerous ‘melodic composition’ techniques available in compositional books and on the internet.
- Think of the form and structure of your melody. For example, in a 4/4- time signature, 3 bars of melody will sound incomplete. In Western music, popular and more serious alike, melodies usually happen in phrases dividable by 2 – resulting in 2 / 4 /8 / 16 – bar melodic phrases.
- Listen to improvisational genres where artists ‘invent’ melodies on the sport. For example, listen to jazz genres and vocalists freely improvising to a set chord progression give you a good example of how to play around with pitches from the chord progression, manifesting in spontaneous melodies.
- Start to play a musical instrument or sing more in the shower – a good instrument and voice teacher can guide you to improvise melodies on your instrument, by following a few set strategies.