Writing a Melody
“What are you going to send me out of the room humming?”
This is the most common question I ask my students when teaching them how to compose music. Think of any great piece of music from any genre and it will (most likely) have a great melody. I have heard it often said that “writing music takes 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration”. I’m not sure of the maths, but melodic writing certainly involves a combination of these 2 elements. Sometimes a great melody will just pop into your head as though it has been divinely inspired; on other occasions you will have to work at 2 or 3 melodic ideas over a long period of time, mixing them up until you finally produce a melody that inspires.
The Melody Writing Toolkit
It helps if you have an awareness of what’s in the melodic toolbox. So, here are a few ideas for how to write and develop a melody…
Choose a key
Choose a key to compose in (basic rule of thumb – if you want your piece to sound happy or uplifting then choose a major scale; if you want it to sound sad/reflective/melancholic then choose a minor key). If you are just starting out compose using C major and A minor.
There are 2 main ways of composing a melody through improvisation- writing a motif/riff and writing a melody over a chord progression.
Motif writing (or motivic development)
This is quite a traditional way of writing and developing a melody.
1. Play the scale of the key – try playing it going up and then play it going down. Make sure that you have got a good grip on how to play it.
2. Try picking out 3 or 4 notes of the scale. Mix up the order you play them in.
3. Try repeating 1 or 2 of the notes and change the rhythm of what you are playing until you find an idea you are happy with (this initial idea that you come up with is called a motif).
4. Record/write down your motif.
5. Repeat the above process until you have 4 or 5 possible melodic ideas/motifs.
Writing a melody over a chord progression
Most contemporary popular music is written in this way.
1. Work out the primary chords of the key you are writing in (these are chords 1, 4 and 5 of the scale and are written in Roman numerals – I IV V). For example, if you are writing in C major the primary chords are C F and G. If you are writing in A minor the primary chords are A minor, D minor and E.
2. Choose a chord progression. A chord progression is simply the order in which you choose to change chords. I suggest that you start by writing a chord progression over 4 or 8 bars. Make sure you start and end on chord I. Other than that, simply try experimenting to work out which sounds “best” where.
3. Play your chord progression on the piano using your left hand. Once you can play the chord progression you are ready to improvise a melody over the top.
4. Improvise a melody – Play the 3 notes of each chord one after another in the right hand (this is called a broken chord) at the same time as you are playing the chord in the left hand. In other words, if you are playing a C major broken chord you would play C – E – G. Try mixing up the order you play them in (you could play G then C the E). Maybe play 2 of one of the notes (G-G-C-E), etc.. Also, try varying the rhythm of the notes you are playing.
You will soon find that melodic ideas come and “work” with the chord progression you have chosen.
Always record/write down your melodic ideas as soon as you have thought of them – whether you prefer to use a phone, mp3 recorder, or manuscript paper, it doesn’t matter; the key is getting the idea down. It is incredibly frustrating to come up with a great melodic idea, make yourself a cup of tea to celebrate and then sit back down at the piano only to find you have forgotten it!!