How to Get a Melodic Figure to Do Anything You Want


Each of the seven songs in this blog uses the same 4-note melodic figure, yet sounds totally different from the rest. And it’s not because they draw from so many eras and styles. It’s because each composer manipulates the figure in his or her own way. Knowing what they do and the effects each treatment creates will give you new things to try next time you sit down to write a song.

Here’s the 4-note figure we’ll explore today. I call it “the Leaping Scale” for reasons that should be obvious.


1. Repeat the melodic figure over and again.

There are two basic ways to do this. First, we can make a loop from the Leaping Scale figure. In just about every loop, the brunt of the musical interest depends on the accompaniment. And that’s certainly true here. In fact, one could argue that having an utterly simplistic melodic idea leave room for the accompaniment to come into its full glory.

the “Leaping Scale Loop”

leaping scale loop tune

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

shake it off analyzed

In vocal music, the following four factors make direct repetition more interesting than its instrumental counterpart.

1. meaning. We’re not only listening to notes. The lyrics convey ideas. Each iteration moves the “story” ahead a little at a time, creating more suspense than if the same words when spoken. Try this sometime. Speak to your friend 4-5 syllables at a time, separating each group with a long pause.

2. harmony. In 90% vocal melody repetition, the harmony changes each time. as it does here. So along with the evolving story, each new chord colors the mood a bit differently.

3. 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.

4. timbre (tone quality). When we sing different words to the same melody, the changing vowels and consonants give each note a unique timbre. Try something. Say the word “Ow” very slowly, exaggerating both the beginning “ah” and the final “oo.” You just shifted timbre. In the end, this isn’t entirely different from playing a melody on guitar then again on saxophone.

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 “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 as the story unfolds. One difference to note 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, 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 when we work with a melodic figure.

(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 how we rattle off a list when we talk, and especially when we rant?

About to Leave for a Trip

3. Transpose the melodic figure.

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

“Crown Him With Many Crowns,” by Matthew Bridges, Godfrey Thring, and George Job Elby


There is hardly anything more compelling in music than its power to rehash very basic things in a way that is the same but different. In real life, so many daily routines seem the same, but the same. One thing music can do is to nudge us to remember that not all routines are without purpose.

4. Reverse all or part of the figure.

This figure consists of a chordal leap plus a 3-note scale. Any combination/recombination of these two elements qualifies as a version of the original. For example, if we play our original Leaping Scale figure backward, we get an ascending scale.

invert similar leap

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

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


It may be a small difference, but putting the leap at the end does indeed feel different than putting it at the beginning. For my money, I find that the leap at the end captures the sense of these lyrics better than leaping at the beginning.

“City of Stars,” comparison


5. Stretch or squash the melodic figure.

Up until this point in this blog, the distance between the first and last notes of the Leaping Scale has been a perfect 5th. BUT … the chordal leap can be any size (even more than an octave if that floats your boat). And leap can go up or down. What’s more, the scale can go up or down. And going further, what if we vary the direction of the chordal leap in relation to the scale?


Some of these manipulations result in figures that look quite different from the ones we’ve considered so far. But don’t let this throw you. These odd-looking figure specimens share the same DNA as the original Leaping Scale at the beginning of this blog.

“Jingle Bells,” by James Lord Pierpont


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

6. Set up a continuous 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.

“Prelude #5,” from WTC I, by J.S. Bach

bach-prelude-5 analysis

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!

Want to go further? You CAN!

Each chapter in this 300-page eBook breaks down everything that effective composers do intuitively. Along the way, you’ll find plenty of step-by-step instructions to help you 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:, which also provides a longer bio.

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