6 Ways to Control a Melodic Figure


What if I told you that ALL THE MUSIC YOU KNOW is made from JUST 24 FIGURES?! Would you even believe me? I don’t blame you if you don’t. So how about you give me a chance to change your mind? In the process, you will likely find a few ideas for what to try in the next song you write!

All the music in this blog comes from just one 4-note figure. I call it “the Leaping Scale” for reasons that should be obvious.

the “Leaping Scale”

1. Repeat the melodic figure over and over.

There are two options here. First, we can make a loop from the Leaping Scale figure. In just about every loop, all of the musical interest depends on the accompaniment. And that’s certainly true here. The Leaping Scale is no more or less appealing than any other figure. But repeating it over and over again without changing anything else would put people to sleep pretty quickly if the groove didn’t draw us in.

The second option for repeating a melodic figure several times in a row is to set it to lyrics (unless you suck at writing lyrics). For example:

“Shake It Off,” by Taylor Swift

In vocal music, we typically encounter four factors that create interest even as the melodic figures themselves repeat.

1. meaning. We’re not only listening to notes. The lyrics convey ideas.

2. timbre. Try something. Say the word “Ow” very slowly, exaggerating both the beginning “ah” and the final “oo.” You just shifted timbre, a technical term for tone color. When we sing different words to the same melody, each one has a unique timbre. In the end, this isn’t entirely different from playing a melody on guitar then again on saxophone.

3. harmony. Very often in vocal melody repetition, the harmony changes each time. as it does here.

4. heads and tails. The number of syllables is apt to change when singing lyrics to a repeating melodic figure. In “Shake It Off,” the first iteration consists of the 4-note figure and the landing note. The second iteration adds a pickup. And the third has no pickup, but adds a tag.

So in vocal music, we hear “exactly” the same figure several times in a row, but it never sounds “exactly” the same.

2. Vary the rhythm of the melodic figure.

It surprised me to discover that the verses of “Shake It Off” and “Someone Like You” use the very same melodic figure. Pretty cool! Like Taylor Swift, Adelle repeats the same figure several times. The biggest difference is that Adelle is far more flexible with her rhythm.

“Someone Like You,” by Adelle

How many ways can we vary the rhythm of a 4-note figure? A number far too large to calculate. Think it through. Even if we limit the note values between a 32nd note to a whole note, we need to leave room for dots, ties, tuplets (triplets, quintuplets, and etc.). And we can dot or tie any of the notes in those tuplets. Finally, as Adelle’s example shows, we also need to allow for repeated notes.

(Warning: rabbit trail ahead!) Ever wonder why singers often repeat the same melodic figure in their verses? Is it any coincidence how closely this resembles the way that we rattle off a list when we talk, and especially when we rant?

3. Transpose the melodic figure.

All of the previous examples use exactly the same notes to make a Leaping Scale: E-C#-B-A. By transposing the figure, we come up with something that sounds the same, but different.

“Crown Him With Many Crowns,” by George J. Elvey

4. Reverse all or part of the figure.

This figure consists of a chordal leap plus a 3-note scale. Any combination of these two elements qualifies as a version of the original. So if we play it backward, we get an ascending scale.

Here’s a song from a recent musical that runs our 4-note figure “backward” (or in technical terms, “retrograde.”) The 3-note scale comes first, followed by the leap.

“City of Stars” from La La Land, by Justin Hurwitz

5. Stretch or squash the melodic figure.

The chordal leap can be any size. That leap can go up or down. The scale can go up or down. The se-ries can run forwards or backward. And going further, what if we vary the direction of the chordal leap in relation to the scale? Who says that both of them must go in the same direction?

The result is a figure that looks quite different from the ones we’ve considered so far. But don’t let this throw you. Both figures share the same DNA.

“Jingle Bells,” by James Lord Pierpont:

Gotta love that kid’s “one-hearse open sleigh!”

6. Use the melodic figure to set up a pattern.

For the last example, here’s a piece by Bach made entirely of the Leaping Scale figure. Bach sets up a strict pattern and maintains it through the entire piece (breaking it only in the coda). The scales on beats 1 & 3 go up, while those on beats 2 & 4 go down. Rather than sounding tedious, the pattern gives the music great momentum.

J.S. Bach: “Prelude #5” from WTC I

Your Challenge

Compose a 4- or 8-bar melody using the Similar Leap figure. Keep the rhythm constant, or vary the rhythm. Use lyrics, or write an instrumental piece — only one rule. Keep working until you really like what you come up with! we can

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Each chapter in this 300-page eBook will help you observe what music makers do intuitively. The examples break everything down into step-by-step instructions so you can create the same effects in your own music.

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David Fuentes

David Fuentes

Professor Fuentes is a composer, author, teacher, and clinician. He brings over 30 years of teaching experience from institutions that include Berklee College of Music, the University of Iowa, Brandeis University, and Calvin University.

Dr. Fuentes’ music has been performed all across the world. It includes music for the classical concert stage, theater and musical theater, television, art installations, popular music genres, and the church.

A published author, his writing on composition, vocation and the arts, and the place of music in human flourishing has been influential in the development of music curriculum in an ever-changing world.

You can find samples of his music and writing on his personal website: davidfuentesmusic.com, which also provides a longer bio.

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