creating a new song melody

Writing New Song Melodies Based On Old Ones

You’d be forgiven for thinking that all the good melodies have been taken. Since most songs are tonal (i.e., they exist in a key), that means that the majority of them are comprised of seven different pitches, all arranged in different ways. It makes you wonder, how many melodies can possibly be concocted by using seven pitches?

Well, when you pull rhythm and time signatures into the equation, the answer to how many melodies you can come up with is: nobody knows, because we’re not done yet.

You can write thousands upon thousands upon thousands of melodies using astonishingly few notes, and they’ll all sound different because the notes are combined uniquely, using their own particular rhythms and chords. And there’s no danger of running out of ideas soon.

But if you’re stuck, it can feel as though all the good melodies have been taken. What do you do if you need to create something, but you’re coming up dry? How about borrowing (sneakily, of course), from published songs. No, not stealing, because done properly, you’re only using pitches as raw material. It will be as though you’ve demolished one house to build another entirely unique one.

Here’s a simple 4-step process that gets you started:

  1. Take a song that you like, and play the first 4-to-8 notes of that melody. (If your chosen song uses repeated notes, play one note to represent all the repeated one). For songs in keys out of your vocal range, transpose them to whichever key works for you.
  2. Now take those notes, and play them without rhythm or reference to time signature. Just 8 notes, one after another.
  3. Improvise rhythms on those notes, taking care not to use the rhythms of the original tune.
  4. Create some chords that can work with those notes. Start simple. You’d be surprised that most notes, even up to 8 or more, can be successfully harmonized with just 2 chords.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you love “Set Fire to the Rain” (Adele), in the key of D minor. Here’s what the three steps above give us:

  1. The notes of first phrase of the verse: C-C-C-F-G-F-F-F-F-E-E-E-E-E-F. Simplified, that gives you: C-F-G-F-E-F
  2. Play those notes several times, just to get familiar with the sound
  3. Start improvising rhythms and shapes, being sure not to use any of the rhythms of the original. You can repeat notes, and also find small shapes from inside the group of six notes to repeat.
  4. Create some chords that will support your improvised melody. And this is where you can have some fun. Let’s hear Adele’s song, modified and otherwise reshaped to sound like an 80s TV-show theme song! LISTEN

Though I’ve done up something quirky and silly, this technique can be used to create more serious music, and all you’ll have done is borrowed the notes of an original melody. Because the rhythmic treatment, tempo, chords, and possibly even the time signature are all different, you’ve got a completely legal way to use an existing song.

This won’t create for you an entire song, of course. But it will give you something hooky to start with, something that can get your own creative juices flowing.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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  1. thanks for the tip! i’ve been working with my song all day long and got stuck without knowing what to do. Love your post!

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