How to develop a melody from a simple idea

Sometimes you’ve got the beginning of a good melody. Just a few notes that seem to work well with the chords or bass line or other parts in y our song.

Don’t just loop it!

Turn that little melodic motif into a melody! Develop it into something that grows and moves and pulls the listener forward. Make something of it. It’s unfortunate that so many great-sounding songs are let down by their lack of melody. A melody is not just a one-bar monophonic line voiced above middle C. Melodies span several bars. They have contour. They have phrases. They interact with the other parts of the song.

So how do you turn your few notes into a melody?

If you’re stuck for ideas, you can start with the duplicate-and-vary approach. Quite simply – start with the short idea you’ve got duplicate it so it plays twice. Then change the duplicate so that it’s recognisably different and also recognisably derived from the original idea. Simple, eh?

Of course, that wouldn’t get you very far if that’s all you did. The trick is to take it further. For starters, you can create multiple variations and sequence them in a way that makes musical sense. If you’re not sure what to do, think about contour. Some variations will be busier than others. Some will be high-pitched than others. Some will be more recognisable than others. Think about the ways in which you can make variations and organise them into a sequence that makes sense to you.

This might take a bit of practice. Don’t worry if your first few attempts sound a bit weird.

Once that makes sense and you’ve got a good grasp of how it works, you can start to start thinking about other factors as well, such as:

  • Using more than one original idea. Start with two or three different melodic ideas, create some variations and then explore what happens when you combine them in interesting ways.
  • Dividing your melody into phrases. Rather than creating a long string of constant notes, divide your melody into shorter sections (try 4 bars) with each section separated from its neighbours by a beat. This can make a melody feel more natural if it loosely mimics the length of time a singer can hold a note or phrase before needing to take a breath.
  • Harmonic complexity. Think about where your melody uses the tonic (the same note as the key of your song). Phrases that use the tonic a lot will feel more stable than phrases that don’t use the tonic much (or at all). Use the circle of fifths to understand how stable/unstable different notes are.
  • Rhythmic complexity. This is very similar to harmonic complexity. Think about how many notes are on the beat and how many notes or off the beat (or in between beats). Phrases that have a lot of notes on the beat will feel more stable than phrases that have more offbeat notes.

And here’s a little secret: This approach works on more than just melodies. It’s a valid approach to take for basslines, drums, background parts… almost anything. Just keep asking yourself: How can I take this further?

-Kim.

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    • irritable
    • August 31st, 2011

    And how about:

    1. Take a fragment/sub-set of your original melodic idea (as short as 3 or 4 notes) and repeat the fragment multiple times, changing the notes, timing, or background chords.

    2. Then re-link with the original short idea.

    3. Change the background chord of your melodic idea. If it’s C, try Amin or G7 or even Cmin (you’ll probably need to adjust a note or two) then find a route back return to the original idea.

    4. Many strong tunes, including but not limited to Blues-based songs, follow the general plan: (1) Musical phrase, (2) Modified Phrase, (3) Move away from phrase (variation, contrasting idea, fragmentation, new chord area etc) (4) Restate original idea.

    5. Similarly, many strong rhythmic and harmonic ideas are developed and extended by following a similar plan.

    6. Vary the idea by repeating it in half time or double time, or by reversing it in your sequencer. Then restate the original idea.

    7. Try to find a musical idea which contrasts with, or answers the original idea or is opposed to it. Play them off against each other. Then see if they can be integrated into a composite idea.

    8. Study the experts. You may love or hate (or be utterly indifferent to) the songs of the Beatles from 45 years ago but they contain some very original and skilfully developed musical ideas. Alan Pollack’s Notes on these songs (www.recmusicbeatles.com/public/files/awp/awp.html) and Dominic Pedlar’s book “Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles” both provide insightful musical analyses which don’t require any technical knowledge. All songs are readily downloadable. Similarly, at a more complex level, many of the songs of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (whether you love them or hate them) are constructed by the skilful development of short musical elements. “The Art of Steely Dan” published by Cherry Lane analyses a number of their ingenious techniques, plus there are great midi files all over the net which can help.

  1. @irritable
    Those are all excellent ideas – definitely worth exploring!

    -Kim.

    • B
    • September 9th, 2011

    ive been reading your posts and though i already knew theory and all reading your posts brought out more creativity and more inspiration ,im glad i found your blog im working on a piece now ill forward it to you once complete

  2. @B
    Thanks, glad to hear that it’s helping you to be more creative and inspired! That’s great!

    -Kim.

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