The 3 Core Principles of Melody

fundamentals of melody

It’s hard to define principles that actually work for melody. Melody seems hopelessly enigmatic, inexplicable, in the same way that beauty and love are. Yet melody has three aspects that we can describe in clear, plain terms. And we can do so without taking away any of its mystery or power! In fact, just the opposite. Learning these core principles will do far more for your intuition than your intellect.

Now by “principles,” I don’t “rules.” Rules are picky prohibitions. “Don’t leap more than an octave.” “Don’t leap more than two times in a row.” They exist to prevent certain blunders from recurring. For example, a friend tells a story about a guy in his college dorm who shot a drinking fountain with an arrow. It must have been a cheap drinking fountain because it broke. Lots of water damage. So the college made a rule that said, “No shooting drinking fountains with arrows.”

The real problem with rules is that they are only for one situation. (So maybe it’s still ok to shoot a toilet with an arrow? How about a drinking fountain with a slingshot?) Rules don’t tell you how to think. In contrast, core principles can shape how we approach a wide array of situations. And that’s what we’re after.

NOTE: This post introduces all three principles. Each principle is then explored a bit more deeply in a future blog post in this series.

PRINCIPLE #1. Melody is not made of single notes, it’s made of figures.

This addresses the MATERIAL of melody: the basic stuff that it’s made from. When we overlook this simple fact, we tend to compose one note at time. This explains why we often get stuck. It can also explain why our music isn’t memorable.

The simplest definition of “melody” is “a series of single notes.” Ok, so here’s a series of single notes from a well-known song. But is it a melody?

That series of notes looks rather random, no? Maybe there’s something missing from the simple definition of melody? Wait, aren’t melodies built around patterns? Below, I’ve highlighted the patterns in play for this song.

Almost every note is part of a 3-note scale. It’s the same pattern or “figure” we find in millions of songs. And that’s the point! A “melodic figure” is a common pattern or “building block” for melody. That’s why if you listen closely to any melody (including ones you’ve written), you’ll find that it uses figures found in every other melody.

In other words, everyone uses these common building blocks whether they realize it or not. So why bother thinking about them? I’m so glad you asked!


Take Control.

You can learn to take control of melodic figures when you compose. I can show you how to vary them, combine them, switch one for another, and much more. You’ll compose faster, with more continuity and expression!

Below, the string of notes from the first two examples appear in their actual note values. This makes it easier to see and hear the figures. That’s because there is a strong relationship between melodic figures and meter. In particular, melodic figures line up with the strongest beats. Most of the time.

In this song, each figure is roughly two beats long, with some shifted earlier. What can I say? Lennon and McCartney like syncopation. But as we’ll see when we explore Principle #2, the syncopation isn’t thrown in just for the heck of it.


PRINCIPLE #2. Notes behave differently just before, right on, and just after each beat.

This addresses the source of ENERGY in melody: harnessing its interior vitality. Here, the focus is on meter – the most powerful force in music. Learn to use meter to control melodic momentum. It’s the key to achieving a wide range of expressive effects.

The first bit of Eleanor Rigby has only two attacks on strong beats. (In 4/4 strong beats are 1 and 3.) I’ve marked downbeat attacks with red arrows. All the notes longer than an eighth are syncopated. Figures that begin on upbeats are marked with blue arrows.

Lennon and McCartney didn’t have to write the rhythms this way. There are plenty of other ways to arrange a 3-note scale within 4 eighth notes. But mark this well: Each option will make the notes in the figure “behave” differently, and so “feel” differently. Here are two examples. My first rewrite removes all syncopation. In other words, I shifted the syncopated attacks back onto strong beats. (This produces the simplest distribution of durations with this figure in this meter.)

The second rewrite “reverses” the metric effects. What was originally syncopated gets straightened, and what was on downbeats moves to upbeats.

Something else about melody and meter. In music with lyrics, changing the accentuation in the melody changes the overall sense of meaning. Listen to both of my rewrites again. Do they change your impression of this person named Eleanor Rigby. The overall attitude of the song? Something else? How so?


PRINCIPLE #3. An effective melody will have both predictable and unpredictable parts.

This addresses the IMPACT of Melody: How to strategically rework melodic ideas so they stick in listeners’ memory. Musicians are deathly afraid of being predictable. But by knowing how to combine predictability with less-expected outcomes, your music will sound both catchy and insightful.

To most people, the word “predictable” is synonymous with cliché. So when a beat, riff, chord progression, or lyric sounds too familiar, we immediately pooh-pooh the song for being unoriginal.

But predictability can also refer to “the most likely thing to happen in a given situation.” That’s the meaning we’ll focus on here.

As members of a culture, we learn hundreds of “structures” or “schemas” through listening to music. The result is that when we hear “x” and “y,” we automatically expect “z” to follow. Here’s an undeniable example. After a V chord, the most likely chord is I. Other “less expected” chords will be recognized as “less typical.” And certain other chords will seem downright wacky.


That was a clear example. But not every unexpected turn is so easy to recognize. In fact, the example of predictability I’m about to show is quite subtle. Yet I’m sure that as a musician you can sense it. (Sensitivity to nuance is one thing that makes us musicians, no?) And also, that you will understand how it shapes the meaning of the song in a powerful way. 


In “Eleanor Rigby,” the unusual phrase structure conveys meaning.

99% of all phrases in music are 4 bars long. Why? Because even-numbered phrases feel “balanced.” In what sense, “balanced?” Bars 1 and 3 of a phrase feel strong, in the same way that beats 1 and 3 of a measure do. Likewise, bars 2 and 4 have similar upbeat qualities to beats 2 and 4. So over the course of a typical phrase, we sense “down(2,3,4) up(2,3,4) down(2,3,4) up(2,3,4).” The term for this phenomenon is “hypermeter.” That every “down” is followed by an “up” in good order produces a sense of balance.

But that’s not at all what happens in “Eleanor Rigby.” The first phrase is 5-bars long. Odd, but so is Eleanor. This lonely misfit doesn’t fit in with societies expectations. There’s something “off” about her. Lennon and McCartney embed this deeply into the music through the ungainly way it shifts and starts.

The most balanced way to build a 5-bar phrase puts the bulk of the phrase first: a group of 3 bars followed by a group of 2 bars. (This expands on the most common division of 5/4 time: 3 + 2, as in the song “Take Five” by Paul Desmond: 1 2 3 4 5). But not here. The bars of this 5-bar phrase fall into three quite unequal subgroups: 1 bar + 3 bars + 1 bar. 

The effect is not only unbalanced, it’s fragmented. There is no attempt to join the 1-bar “fragments” with the 3-bar “sequences.” Every subgroup begins on the note G, which is accented and on the downbeat. Listen again. As you do, “perform” the red arrows by tapping your foot at those spots to mark what the composers have set as a beginning point.

The lyrics’ structure matches the lopsided phrase structure.

Also notice that the lyrics in each of the “fragment” bars are short, self-contained statements. Some state terse observations. Others make unkind judgments. Not a single one is kind or even slightly affirming.

In contrast, the lyrics of the sequential bits are longer, and describe pointless activities. The melody in these bars is sequential. Melodic sequences follow their pattern as if by rote. In doing so, they feel inevitable. Here, the first three notes of this sequence propel Eleanor’s daily habits into their meaningless routine.

But wait, it gets bleaker. In just about every melodic sequence I know, the harmony changes with the melody. In other words, a series of chords “support” the melody by moving in synch with it. Not here. The melody runs through its humdrum repetitive tedium all alone, ignored by the static harmony. Listen again, please. Feel how the music says at least as much about loneliness as the lyrics.

During the verse, we hear Eleanor’s story as if we’re living in her world. The perspective flips at the bridge. It’s a moment of reflection from a safe distance. And we feel safer, not that the music moves in balanced, 4-bar phrases.

Remembering that the word “chorus” literally means “all sing,” the perspective changes yet once again. Isn’t this our society, singing our pity for the poor wretches from whom we need to distance ourselves?

SUMMING UP

Notice the word “core” in the title of this series. Physical therapists tell us that strengthening our core sets us on a path to better health. A person with great abs can have a weak core. A person with a bit too much insulation in the belly can have a strong one. A core isn’t visible. But it emanates wellness throughout the entire person. How strong is your core? I mean your musical core.

Everything I introduced in this blog (notice I didn’t say “covered”) has all the same properties as any other core. That is to say that just because listeners can’t articulate what draws them to our music doesn’t mean that they don’t SENSE something intriguing afoot. How many listeners will hear “Eleanor Rigby” and comment, “Ah yes, a spectacularly effective assembly of 3-note scales!”? Or, “Without the syncopation, that song would have never sold a single copy.” Or, “This song demonstrates that the 5-bar phrase can offer commentary on the problem of alienation in modern society.”

Still, this song continues to speak deeply to people, decades after it was recorded. Few can say why, but now YOU know. You’re a composer. And as you develop your musical core through careful listening, more and more meaningful connections will begin to express themselves in your music.

So the point about the three core principles is not that listeners will notice an immediate change in your music (though they may). But once YOU start listening for ways that other composers maneuver figures, meter, and predictability, it will trigger sensitivity and insights to the very same things in your own music making. One final word. Thanks be for songs like “Eleanor Rigby,” which demonstrates that in good music, the meaning is not just in the text, its in the notes. This is our mission, friends.

©2019 David Fuentes. No portion of this material may be used without permission from the author.

However, FEEL FREE to share or link to this post!

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David Fuentes
David Fuentes

A composer, author, clinician, and professor for over 30 years, Dr. Fuentes has gained a reputation as someone who finds new ways to approach persistent challenges. Come back often to see which aspects of melody he's been mulling over most recently! Be sure to leave a comment or question. For more about David, visit df@davidfuentesmusic.com

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Intrigued? 

Check out Figuring Out Melody, a 300+ page eBook. It’s full of examples to draw insights and inspiration from. And it gives step-by-step instructions that will help you use everything you learn in your own music. 

This Post Has One Comment

  1. These blog posts are fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing these with us. I’m looking forward to reading and working through Figuring out Melody! All the best, Geir

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