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Music Composition 101 - How to Craft a Melody

A strong melody is an integral part of any composition. Here's a few tips on how to create the best one possible.

Every piece of music in any genre can benefit from a well written, strong melody. However, this can often be evasive for some - and often beginner - composers. The challenge often comes from having a blank slate and not knowing where to begin. How do you form something out of nothing and begin the process of creating a masterpiece?

Here are a few different ways that I do it and tricks that you can use to assist you.

Determine your instrument/ensemble and difficulty level

One of the first things you should do if possible is figure out who or what you're writing for. This will be much easier if you are doing a commision or working with a specific group or artist. (Feel free to ask around if someone needs a piece written for them. Sometimes you can find an artist or ensemble who is eager to work on new music.)

If you do not have a specific group in mind, you can still establish in your head for whom the piece will be written. Ultimately you will always need to decide at some point in the process what instrument it will be for because you will be limited by their abilities.

Additionally, you will need to figure out for which level of musician you are writing. A 6th grade orchestra is going to have significantly different skills than the Chicago Symphony. This will help you determine everything from the best keys to write in and how difficult to make your melody.

"Pillars then fillers"

Now that you have your parameters set, now what? How do you go about starting the melody? An idea I use and have told students is what I call "Pillars, then Fillers." The basic idea is that you outline the main melodic ideas first and then go back and make it fancy.

Your "pillars" can be a chord progression you want to use, or specific beats or notes you want to be sure to hit. Then you go back and fill in the space between notes as you see fit.

Rework Note Patterns

Find a pattern of notes and see how many combinations you can make with it. For instance, let's say you choose A-C-E-G. Write out every combination of these notes you can think of without changing the rhythm, so for this example, just quarter notes. You will end with C-E-G-A, E-G-A-C, or G-A-C-E, plus the original. You now have 4 potential melodies to choose from. Once you have decided on one, you can use that to build the rest of your melody.

Chromatics for Dramatics

An easy and common method for making your "fillers" would be to use chromatic notes. "Chromatics" or chromaticism is the concept of using small steps between notes. For instance between G and A you have G sharp/A flat which is a chromatic note, or "half step" or "semi-tone." Moving down by several half steps in a row can give you a chromatic line. There are a total of 12 chromatic tones in an octave which is the complete collection notes to choose from when writing music.

Opposites are Attractive

A good way to create flow in your melodies is to move in opposite motion. For instance, if you have a large leap, have your melody climb or fall back in the opposite direction. This can happen quickly or slowly, but by doing so you are adding peaks and valleys to the melody which will help it flow and be more exciting.

In the below example from my piece Serenity you can see that when the melody drops, it winds its way back up, creating a flow. This can also allow you to use the higher note as a bit of a launchpad for your next phrase.

If you find that you're in a bind and don't know how to begin crafting your melody, just remember these few simple tricks and you are on your way.

Keep an eye out for more tips and tricks coming soon!


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