Focusing on one pitch at a time can help add structure to your song melodies.
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Do you find lately that your song melodies have an undesirable wandering nature? One aspect of good melodies that prevents the meandering quality is repetition. Listen to pop music from almost any genre and you will notice, especially in choruses, that the melody is comprised of short melodic cells or fragments that repeat – either exactly (“Paradise” by Coldplay), or in a combination of exact and approximate repeating (“We Are Young” by Fun. ft. Janelle Monáe).
Repetition aside, there is another way to give your melodies a sense of structure and design, and it involves simplifying the process by which you create the melody in the first place, reducing it to a single pitch that moves upward from verse to chorus to bridge.
To do this, 1) choose a key, and then 2) create a chord progression for each section that you envision for your song. For ease of learning this method, it helps if your progressions all start with the I-chord, but once you know the method that is not a necessity. Now do the following:
- To begin the creation of your melodies, start with the verse. Choose a note from the tonic chord other than the actual tonic pitch. That means that you will choose either the 3rd or 5th. In the key of A major, you are going to choose either the note C# or E. It’s best to start with the note that appears in a majority of your verse chords.
- Sing the note E while you play through your progression. Hold on to that note for as long as it works with your chord. If it clashes, move your pitch up or down until it fits. Find an opportunity to return to E as soon as possible. You’ve just created a melody that sits mainly on one pitch.
- Return to the beginning of your verse progression, and begin singing through your E-note “melody” again. But on this run-through, start to create little melodic shapes that start on E, but then quickly move up or down, away from E and back to it. You are starting to create little melodic cells that use E as a starting and ending point.
- Move on to the chorus, and choose a new note. Because your chorus is starting on the I-chord, choose a note from that chord that is higher than your verse note. Using the tonic note is fine, because choruses often feature the tonic note more than the verse. Do the same procedure of creating short melodic shapes that move away from and back to your chosen note.
At this point, you’ve got the basic shape of a melody. It may not move as much as you’d like, and so of course you can now start to modify what you’ve written to be more creative. But by starting this way, you allow certain notes to be important anchors or focus notes.
Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor” is a good model for what this method can yield. Also, Imogen Heap’s “Half Life” uses a lot of single-note repetition in the verse. It’s a great method to try if you find that your melodies suffer from wandering all over the map with no sense of design or purpose.
This method can also serve as a starting point for verse-only, or verse-refrain designs. Use mainly repeated-note ideas for the bulk of the melody, and create something independent of that for the refrain. (“Blowin’ in the Wind” is a good model).
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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