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Melody Writing Techniques?


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Hi all, I'm relatively new to the forums, so excuse me if this is a totally inane question.

I've recently been kicking my music-writing endeavors into overdrive, I'm taking lessons, (re)learning theory, and writing music whenever possible.

I have one huge problem though: My melodies suck. I can write a decent progression, I can bang out an alright bassline, but for actual hummable, catchy melodies I'm pretty trash. I know practice makes perfect, but it's gotten to the point where it's a little discouraging.

So does anyone have any tips on melody writing, or any techniques they use to generate good ideas? I try to record every time I improvise to catch any possible gems, but I just don't come up with much.

I know I'm likely getting in my own way, but I'm not sure how to get around that.

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Hi all, I'm relatively new to the forums, so excuse me if this is a totally inane question.

I've recently been kicking my music-writing endeavors into overdrive, I'm taking lessons, (re)learning theory, and writing music whenever possible.

I have one huge problem though: My melodies suck. I can write a decent progression, I can bang out an alright bassline, but for actual hummable, catchy melodies I'm pretty trash. I know practice makes perfect, but it's gotten to the point where it's a little discouraging.

So does anyone have any tips on melody writing, or any techniques they use to generate good ideas? I try to record every time I improvise to catch any possible gems, but I just don't come up with much.

I know I'm likely getting in my own way, but I'm not sure how to get around that.

Whenever possible, start with a melody first. This way, you are not bound by an existing progression and you can find out what chords are implied or otherwise suitable for your melody afterwords.

Try to maintain a pleasing contour in each phrase - basically, try to keep only one highest and lowest point (which are not repeated) in the phrase.

The other important thing would be to keep stepwise motion in the melody. This a common problem with n00b melodies is that they have a lot of leaps and skips that don't resolve by stepwise motion. As such, the melody sounds random. If this sounds confusing, just imagine it this way: If your melody is in A minor and it moves from A to E, try making the next note either F or D.

Another cool trick is to try using different modes over the tonic chord of the progression. For example, if you're in C Major and you have a few bars of just the C chord, you could play C Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian over that C chord and just play the regular C Major scale over other chords in the progression. This way you can still use the sounds of modes outside of the C major scale that still have the same tonal center - thus, you maintain the tonality and have more interesting melodies!

Edited by AngelCityOutlaw
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Syncopate. A lot. I think it's the lack of syncopation that makes many beginner melodies sound so stiff and rigid. It's also good to consider where your melody should start. It doesn't have to be on the first measure at all. I think a lot of good melodies get going a bit before the first measure but it could really be anywhere like right in the middle.

Other than that I mostly think in building up patterns and then choosing when to deviate from them in order to create contrasts. Contrasts in both intervals and rhythm. Like over here I'll have a sequence of eighths, but then I'll break it up with a syncopated fourth, etc... It might even be a good idea to tap out a rhythm first to base the intervals on. Usually you pretty much do this if you already have a foundation with a chord progression, drums and bassline to add melody on top of.

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Simple answer: take jazz choir and try out for a solo! Just kidding, unless you really want to, as I did. It helped my improvisational abilities with bass lines; I had to develop intuition for chord progressions on my own though.

Real answer: Study melodies you deem good and figure out why they're good. Does the rhythm keep you interested? Are there awkward intervals? Does the flow make sense? Does it evoke the quality you want from it? Does it make you grin with its impressiveness?

Example of a melody/solo I was especially happy with in the end @ 1:39

Edited by timaeus222
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If you look at a very large portion of catchy melodies, especially from classical music and video game music alike (they are more similar than you would think), you'll notice that these melodies have "period" structure.

What that means is that melodies will have a "question and answer" type structure to them. The formal name for this is antecedent-consequent.

Typical examples will be four, eight, or sixteen measure melodies split into two parts (phrases). In a parallel period, the first half of the melody will go a certain way and when it gets to the middle, it will do something called a half cadence. Ignoring chords, this simply means it will end on a note of the dominant chord, either 5th, 7th, 2nd, or sometimes 4th scale degree. (So in C major, end it the middle of the melody on either G, B, or D. Maybe F, but it's harder to get it to sound like a question.)

The second phrase of your melody can either make the period a "parallel" period or a "contrasting" period. Parallel period means that your melody will use the same notes as the first phrase for the first half (doesn't have to be strictly half, can be more or less). In other words, it's repeating the musical idea in the first phrase. Then, for the remaining measures of the melody, it will go differently, and the last note will conclude on the 1st scale degree.

19381316.jpg

A major melody.

Look at the treble clef, just until the first repeat sign. You don't have to be able to read the notes, but look at the measures 1 and 2, and then 5 and 6. Those are the same melodies. The difference is, measures 3 and 4 are different from measures 7 and 8. Measure 4's melody ends on the 2nd (and 7th) scale degree and measure 8 ends on the 1st (with 3 and 5 under it, less important).

You'll find this style of melody pretty much everywhere, especially in video game music.

Look at the Legend of Zelda theme, it's a 16 measure parallel period with a 4 measure extension that relates it back to the first phase's ending. You can also think of the 8 bar phrases of this period as periods themselves, but they aren't parallel (the first four measures are not similar to the second four). It still follows the "half cadence in the middle, resolve at the end model" EXCEPT:

A lot of times, old VGM songs don't have their consequent phrase end on the first scale degree (tonic of the key), they have it half cadence again. This is because video game music is a constant loop, and the easiest way to write a melody to keep going is to not resolve it to the tonal center.

Here are some timestamps:

Starts at :09 (Measure 1)

Ends on 5th at :21 (In measure 8)

Repeats at :24 (Measure 9, onward)

Deviates from first phrase repetition (Measure 11 and onward)

Ends on 5th at :37 (measure 16)

Leads back to the ending first phrase, which ends on the 5th (:39)

In diagram, colors meaning repetition:

[1 2 3 4, 5 6 7 8] - [9 10, 11 12 13 14 15 16] - [17 18, 19 20]

This isn't the most standard example, but it shows you there's nothing "magical" about catchy melodies, they have a decipherable structure to them.

Go ahead and research contrasting period. If you understand the parallel period just fine, contrasting will be just as easy to grasp.

Now obviously this isn't the only thing a good melody needs, but this kind of structure is common, and there's nothing wrong with adopting it. Everyone else's answers are still more than valid. Syncopation makes a melody interesting, studying melodies you like makes you write melodies like them. This answer serves as more of basic breakdown of a bread and butter melody's structure.

Edited by Neblix
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I literally come up with melodies using my voice. I'll sing over my chord progression and see where I go with it. Most of my best melodies come out of absolutely nowhere. But just about every song I've ever written, vocal or not, has just come very randomly to my head and I've begun singing it out loud. Then I sing it into my phone and save it and hold on to it until I'm at my computer and throw together an idea and get it working.

I hate thinking too hard about things. Like "hmmm... I'm sitting at my piano and today I shall write a song... I'm going to wait for inspiration now... I will now play a brilliant song I just came up with by sitting here". Nope. Tried it once and it's bs. I come up with my greatest ideas when I'm literally sleeping and dreaming, or I'm like in an elevator or I just start beat boxing or I hear an ambient noise and start making up music to it. Or I'll sit at my keyboard and literally just start playing random crap and see it where it goes.

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I literally come up with melodies using my voice. I'll sing over my chord progression and see where I go with it. Most of my best melodies come out of absolutely nowhere. But just about every song I've ever written, vocal or not, has just come very randomly to my head and I've begun singing it out loud. Then I sing it into my phone and save it and hold on to it until I'm at my computer and throw together an idea and get it working.

I hate thinking too hard about things. Like "hmmm... I'm sitting at my piano and today I shall write a song... I'm going to wait for inspiration now... I will now play a brilliant song I just came up with by sitting here". Nope. Tried it once and it's bs. I come up with my greatest ideas when I'm literally sleeping and dreaming, or I'm like in an elevator or I just start beat boxing or I hear an ambient noise and start making up music to it. Or I'll sit at my keyboard and literally just start playing random crap and see it where it goes.

That is exactly what I do sometimes. :D I get a simple melody in my head in some form, and I improvise while walking around in my room, and when it sounds coolest, I'll sing it again and write that out, tweaking it some more in the MIDI. I come up with the bottom notes of each chords in the implied progression by singing a bass line to the melody, and then from there it gets much easier to create the chord progression. It's already outlined, and it just takes some trial-and-error, even if you don't know music theory, like me.

Edited by timaeus222
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Wow, first of all, I'm amazed how supportive and responsive everybody is towards what I thought was kind of inane question. I've been lurking for something like 6-7 years, and now I wish I hadn't. Thanks so much for the great responses!

So I'll dig into analyzing some of my favorite melodies to see what kind of form/contour they have, that appeals to my left-brained way of doing things. But I have a kind of esoteric supplemental question: is there a "good" way of improving your sense of syncopation, besides the methods already outlined for better melody writing in general? I seem to be as square as can be. Is there a good instrument or something I could try learning that would improve my rhythmic sense?

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Syncopation? What instrument do you play?

Honestly, after a while, it starts becoming natural. Just listen to a lot of music with syncopation. Funk and RnB and Jazz especially. I honestly always suggest listening to jazz. Chaka Khan had a buttload of syncopation in her tracks, melodies and chords and bass lines and everything.

Just feel it out. You'll get it.

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Try to have a balance of down and up beats. Using compound meters and simple meters in conjunction is just one technique of cool rhythm. For example, when triplets (compound meter, 3 divisions for a beat) are used by an instrument and the main rhythms of the rest are doing a syncopated rhythm in simple meter (two divisions per beat).

Most recent VGM example:

The violin melody is essentially written in 12/8 (four beats of triplets) while the accompaniment (drum slams, acoustic strumming) is in regular 4/4. You don't need to make these theoretical distinctions when you write in the DAW project, and changing the snap grid or manually recording with good timing will achieve the same effect as if you formally wrote for the software to recognize those time signatures.

Edited by Neblix
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Syncopation? What instrument do you play?

Honestly, after a while, it starts becoming natural. Just listen to a lot of music with syncopation. Funk and RnB and Jazz especially. I honestly always suggest listening to jazz. Chaka Khan had a buttload of syncopation in her tracks, melodies and chords and bass lines and everything.

Just feel it out. You'll get it.

I play guitar and piano, neither particularly well though. I've been considering trying to improve my percussion skills, however I'm able, for a while now, just to see if I get a little less rigid rhythmically.

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I play guitar and piano, neither particularly well though. I've been considering trying to improve my percussion skills, however I'm able, for a while now, just to see if I get a little less rigid rhythmically.

Yeah I think a very convenient thing to do is get pretty familiar with percussion. Once you've got a lot of percussion understanding down, it makes syncopation so much easier.

I'm not a great keyboardist; I'm only good enough to write music. But I'm also a drummer and it changes the way I hear things dramatically.

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Staff notation != music

If anything I believe you shouldn't constrain yourself to writing with an instrument unless you are already very adept at playing whatever it is you can think of. It can get pretty limiting if you start to get issues moving out of your comfort zone. Doing chord inversions and stuff is second nature to me on a piano roll, but on a guitar you have to learn a whole different grip. I think it's stuff like that which is responsible for average singer songwriters on acoustic guitars sticking to the same old limited set of chords.

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I don't see the point. Are you trying to say that we can all be Paul McCartney?

No, but getting at the essence of Paul McCartney is feasible.

Or maybe it's because I've been reading Plato's The Republic.:tomatoface:

Seriously though, anyone who learns objectivity in music can be musically talented, even if they don't actually know music theory. For example, I'm not knowledgeable enough at music theory to analyze chords or melodic contour and whatnot, but I get when a chord sounds cool, or when an arrangement that depends a lot on harmonic complexity sounds awesome. When I finally started branching from that notion and developing a process to write chord progressions intuitively for my own contexts, that's when that appreciation for harmonies came. :)

Edited by timaeus222
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