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Music & Entertainment

Tips for Writing Melodies by Dance Music Producer Armin van Buuren

Written by MasterClass

Oct 24, 2018 • 3 min read

Melody writing can seem daunting and opaque at first. How do world-famous musicians create such memorable hooks and original melodies? The answer is a simple study in method, music theory, and creativity. Hit music producer Armin van Buuren is a dance music DJ, record producer, remixer, and label owner from the Netherlands. Throughout his career, Armin has won 12 DJ Awards, 27 International Dance Music Awards, and has been named the number one DJ by DJ Mag five times, four times in a row. Armin became the fourth trance artist to receive a Grammy nomination for his 2014 single “This Is What It Feels Like” featuring Trevor Guthrie.

Armin begins a new song by choosing a classic song that inspires him, usually from classical music. Armin says “some of these cords that were invented hundreds of years ago are still so fresh and so new.” But in order to take those chord progressions from classical to trance or electronic dance music, Armin has to make them his own. Learn how to create a great melody, using Armin van Buuren’s tried and true techniques.

Written by MasterClass

Oct 24, 2018 • 3 min read

1. Don’t Neglect the Classics

Armin turns to the masters when he’s looking for melody writing inspiration. For instance, Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” is one that he particularly likes. It’s a simple melody, but one that still resonates. The classic songs and musicians are classic for a reason: They speak to something inside humanity. For that reason, it’s always a good idea to turn to them when you’re looking to write a memorable melody.

2. Pull Out the Chords

A chord is any group of notes. Armin says that “basic chords can touch your soul,” so experiment with chord changes until you find the ones that inspire you. Listen to the song you’ve chosen and pull out the chords that speak to you. But start simple—C major is the most common key, and two chords should be enough to get you going.

3. Add Layers on Top of Those Chords

Once you’ve chosen your chords, it’s time to add layers on top of them. Play them all together; play them in parts; play them in different orders until something strikes you. Trying playing a chord incorrectly. Reverse it and build a melody around this unique sound.

4. Try Something Unfamiliar

Classics aren’t the only place to start of, course. Armin recommends going totally outside your comfort zone by picking up an instrument you’re unfamiliar with and playing two notes. Throw them into your sampler, add reverb, and see where they lead you. The act of starting with the unfamiliar can be as inspiring as starting with the familiar classics.

5. Sing It Before You Write It

Sing your melody before you write it! Your voice is another potential instrument as you’re working on coming up with a good melody. Design a demo that uses a singable melody just as Armin did with “You Are.” How does that change the process? How does is it change the end result?

6. Collaborate

Some of the best art—and especially the best music—is the result of collaboration. Armin works closely with producer Benno de Goeij to develop his melodies. After going through the process outline above, he has to clean up the music a little bit before handing it over. He records his chords at slower tempo so they’re easier to play, then speeds up the project’s BPM, cleans up mistakes by editing the MIDI data, and quantizes his notes. Quantization is the process of aligning recorded notes with a tempo grid for situations where perfect timing is necessary.

Once that’s done, he invites Benno to collaborate. Their process is very organic and relies on experimentation—they keep playing around until they find sounds and musical ideas that inspire them.

7. Don’t Give Up

Sometimes it can be frustrating to create and create and create, with no recognition or little pay. Every artist has been there: The long slog through making something you think is incredible, but the rest of the world just doesn’t seem to get. But Armin wants you to remember that the journey is worth it. “I made a lot of records that didn’t do anything in the charts.” Armin says. “I’ve been praised and criticized. My point is that I never gave up and I kept following my heart and my passion.”

So start listening. Start playing. Listen to your gut. And know that the key to creating a good melody lies as much in your heart as it does in your head.

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