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What Is a Melody?
A melody is a sequence of notes played or sung within a piece of music. A simple melody may consist of a single musical phrase—just a few short notes and nothing more. More complex musical ideas may generate far more elaborate melodies, like those you hear in jazz, operatic arias, and progressive rock epics.
What Are the Components of a Melody?
A melody consists of two primary components: pitch and duration. In music theory, every note vibrates at its own distinct frequency, which determines its pitch—how “high” or “low” it sounds. Duration refers to how long a note is held. For instance, a quarter note is a note that lasts one-quarter the duration of a measure written in 4/4 time. Duration also refers to the length of breaks between notes.
3 Types of Melodies
Most melodic ideas come from either a chord progression or a scale, with one notable exception.
- Chord-based melodies: Some songwriters start their melody-writing process by writing a series of chord changes. They then compose melodies based on chord tones—the notes that make up each chord.
- Scale-based melodies: Scale based melodies are comprised of notes within a particular scale or mode. For instance, a C major melody might only use the notes found in a C major scale (indicated by a key signature with no sharp or flat notes). Major and minor scales usually contain seven notes (some minor scales contain more), but you can compose a great melody using fewer notes. Pentatonic scales, which only have five notes, frequently appear in pop music production.
- Monotone melodies: Technically, melodies can also be monotone rhythmic patterns. Some hip-hop vocal melodies fit this category, as do dance beats in some EDM songs. This doesn't mean that every drum beat counts as a song's melody, but if there aren't any pitched sounds layered on top of it, a rhythmic pattern can serve as the melody for a section of a song.
How to Write a Melody: 9 Tips for Writing Memorable Melodies
If you're looking to craft better melodies for your own songs, there are many proven songwriting tips to help you in this pursuit.
- Follow chords. Start your writing process by improvising on a set of chord changes, and let a new melody come from the notes in those chords.
- Follow a scale. You can also come up with melodies by combining the notes from major or minor scales. Major scales and minor scales form the basis of most pop melodies, but if you want to push further, try a dominant scale, an altered scale, or a mode.
- Write with a plan. Freeform songwriting can be liberating, but you may find yourself writing better melodies when you start thinking holistically. Try writing your song's chorus melody first and then work backward. Think about what kind of verse or pre-chorus melodies would best serve the chorus. You can even add an intro section with its own melody that never shows up elsewhere in the song.
- Give your melodies a focal point. A focal point is a high note that a melodic line touches once but never again—or at least not in that section of the song. Make sure that the highest note falls within your singer's vocal range. Of, if you want to subvert the form, you can make your focal point the lowest note in your melody.
- Write stepwise lines with a few leaps. Most vocal melodies follow stepwise motion; this means that most notes are followed by a note that's only a half-step or whole-step above or below. Great songwriters then mix in leaps (two whole steps or more), which stand out from the stepwise motion.
- Repeat phrases, but change them slightly. If you come up with a short musical phrase, repeat it, altering the notes or rhythm slightly each time. Try inserting one different note on each repeat, or add some syncopation to the rhythmic pattern. You might end up with something far more interesting than if you'd just repeated the same exact phrase a few times.
- Experiment with counterpoint. Instead of writing one single melodic line over a chord progression, write two melodies and interweave them. If you have digital audio workstation (DAW) software on your computer, you can lay down one melodic line and then experiment with a second one layered on top of it.
- Put down your instrument. Writing away from an instrument is a great way to generate creativity or push past writer's block. Try singing vocal lines into a recorder app on your smartphone. Then, return to your instrument and transcribe what you sang.
- Get inspired by your favorite artists. Analyze your favorite songs and try to identify what it is about their melodies that hooks you. Then, borrow some of their techniques, whether that involves certain scales, leaps, or rhythmic patterns.
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