Creating Melodies by Inverting Musical Phrases

Flipping melody ideas upside-down can help create longer melodies that have a great sense of structure.


song melodyWhether we realize it or not, the human brain is able to constantly and spontaneously create ideas all the time. For example, every time you speak to someone, you are uttering words that, just a few seconds earlier, you didn’t know you were going to say. You have an idea in your mind, and your brain very quickly assembles words that properly convey your ideas to someone else. Other animals have this kind of ability to a much more limited degree. Birds, for example, have different calls depending on the circumstance of the moment.

For most songwriters, coming up with a musical idea is not the hard part — the hard part is figuring out what to do after you’ve created that initial idea. The ability to spontaneously create something from the imagination is a part of human intelligence. When you have writer’s block, you’re not usually encountering a problem with coming up with an initial idea. It’s more that you don’t know what to do with that idea.


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One idea to try is called melodic inversion. To invert a melodic idea means that you take your short snippet of melody, and then try singing it “upside-down”. Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you’ve created a bit of melody that you really like: [LISTEN]

But now you don’t know what to do with it. Melodic inversion means that you start on the same note, and then move your melody in the opposite direction. Instead of moving in an upward direction like the initial melody, you move downward, and vice versa. You’ve now created a second musical idea: [LISTEN]

You’ll notice that it’s not an exact inversion. It’s a rough changing of direction of the initial phrase.

When you put the two ideas together, they sound like this: [LISTEN]

The benefit of doing this kind of musical inversion is that the second phrase bears a kind of intangible connection to the first one. Audiences hear both melodic phrases as having a kind of familial connection, and that’s always good in songwriting. It’s an important goal of songwriting to make all elements connect with each other on some level.

Inverting phrases can serve as a starting point from which you make changes. For example, after listening to the two phrases I created, I started to feel that the second phrase might sound better if I started lower: [LISTEN]

You can also use this inversion idea to create connections between different sections of a song. For example, try writing a verse that uses mainly downward moving melodic phrases, and then switch to using mainly upward moving ones in the chorus.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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