Dan has been a musician since 1993 and has been producing music as a hobby since 2016.
Melody creates the backbone and vibe in music. Without melodies, music would be reduced to more or less interesting noise. It's therefore smart to get a firm grasp on constructing melodies. For those at the beginning or intermediate stage of musicianship, it helps to keep basic guidelines, terminology, and concepts in mind.
In contrast, harmonic structures (generally the sound of one or more notes played together) and progressions are used to accompany the melody, although a single-instrument performance could produce both melodic and harmonic content at the same time (piano or guitar, e.g.). It's common, however, for a lead instrument to play a melody while an accompanying instrument plays a harmonic progression along with it.
Harmony is relative to the key (A major, C major, etc.). If you're playing a chord progression or single-note line in a specific key, you're said to be harmonious. If deviating from the key at any point, it will have a dissonant sound, although that can be used as a composition tool, as well.
Different regions and cultures have preferences for what makes an interesting melody. Moreover, composers have preferences for writing melodies in certain genres and styles. With the advent of computer technology and its ability to virtualize the playing of instruments (and melody writing), a wide selection of music is available. Since there will always be a demand for traditional musicianship with physical instruments — with or without computers — songwriters are constantly on the lookout for new melodic ideas.
Writing catchy melodies without sophisticated equipment is generally more difficult since the composer must do all the thinking. Computers, on the other hand, typically come with — to a certain extent — predefined melodic definitions and effects. Whatever the case, even with the help of computers, composers benefit from building a toolbox for writing melodies.
What is Melody?
Many musicians can write melodies without formal training, but knowledge of music theory can help. A melody is a sequence of musical notes placed in some type of rhythmic order with the purpose of telling a "story" or keeping the listener’s interest.
Melodies are arranged so that individual notes are placed at specific intervals with respect to sound frequency. A sequence of “half” steps and “whole” steps represents the difference between the frequency of notes in a melody.
For example, on a guitar, half steps are represented by metal frets directly adjacent to each other. In order to move one whole step in a melodic progression, the guitarist moves up or down two frets or strikes the equivalent note on another string.
The major scale represents the combination of whole and half steps used in much of modern music. Melodies can be written using a sequence of chords (each, a sequence of notes simultaneously struck), individual notes, or a combination of both. The major scale — and its 7-note half-step and whole-step combination — is used to construct chords and individual notes played in a sequence.
Playing Melody on Piano
How to Play Melody
When using the major scale to write a melody, choose, for example, four relatively basic chords, but don’t stop there. Creating melodies without cliché calls for building a sense of tension and release, without which, melodies can sound bland.
Using a selected rhythm, play the first chord. Play the next chord. Now play the third chord with an added chromatic note — any note outside of the 7-note scale structure or key. That note is designed to create tension, which generates curiosity among listeners. It also creates a sense of drama, wherein you want to resolve to that last chord. If a certain chromatic note is not appealing, try another. After playing that third chord (with the added chromatic note), proceed to the last chord and it will probably sound like a nice, well-rounded melody.
The same concept can be applied when using the major scale to play single notes in a sequence. For example, after playing a sequence of notes in the major scale for 5–10 seconds, play the same scale with an added chromatic note, briefly, before resolving back to the original scale. It will probably sound interesting.
Playing Melody on Guitar
Additional Melodic Approaches
Different approaches can be used to write melodies and other scale structures can be used besides the major scale. There is not necessarily a wrong way to write melodies, although the intended audience will generally determine the appropriate melodies.
Many composers write melodies spontaneously, even while performing live. However, it’s generally recommended to bring some experience (with melodic concepts) into live improvisations. The outcomes can range from irritating to harmonious and pleasant. Jazz players, for example, frequently improvise music on the fly, which can be done after spending a sufficient amount of time in the practice room.
Constructing melodies can also be accomplished after the recording has been completed. For example, different recorded samples can be combined during the arrangement process as opposed to recording prewritten melodies. It’s common for producers to arrange prerecorded samples to create new melodies.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Dan Martino