Have you ever wondered why people find melodies so irresistible? Have you ever wondered why our feline friends find laser pointers so irresistible? Could there be a connection?
I think so.
In fact, I know so.
Whenever we hear a melody, our ears “chase” it like a cat chasing a laser pointer. So as you listen, picture yourself as a cat trying to guess where the dot will move next.
Your brain was designed for gaming.
According to animal psychologists, cats chase lasers because they’re predators, and that little red dot scampering across the floor seems alive. It wiggles. It darts. And whether pudgy old Schnookums is gullible enough to believe that an odorless light beam might be a potential meal, the natural-born hunter inside will certainly welcome a break from sleeping on the couch all day. (Wouldn’t you?)
According to human psychologists, people love melodies because melodies are based on patterns, and the human brain is a “pattern predator.” Did you know that when you make a correct prediction about a melody, your brain gives you a little reward—a shot of dopamine? But not every time. Our brains quickly lose interest in patterns that are too easy or too difficult to predict. That’s why effective composers, like effective cat owners, will often combine quick-moving, “hard-to-catch” patterns with slow-moving, constant, easy-to-follow patterns.
So what are some patterns we might use to make a melody more captivating?
Translate captivating laser dot patterns into melodic shapes.
As the notes in a melody go up, down, or stay at the same pitch, it’s as if they create an audible “shape.” I’ve made a video to illustrate some connections between the shapes we draw with lasers and the ones we draw with melodies. As you watch, keep in mind that the patterns I include are certainly not the only ones that can infuse your melodies with playful energy. But hey, everybody’s got to start somewhere!For a more stationary list of the eight laser dot patterns you just saw, click here.
Every compelling melody is playful.
Ok, so drawing an analogy between laser games and melodic shape might seem goofy until we recognize that effective melodies combine beguiling shapes, expectation, and surprise in playful ways—regardless of the style, mood, or lyrical content. The following assortment should make this clear.“Drunken Sailor,” traditional sea shanty
“Put Your Records On,” by Corrine Bailey Rae
“Scheherazade,” by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Click here to find out more about Scheherazade. “Prelude #12 in f minor,” from WTC II, by J.S. Bach
Theme from “The Pink Panther,” by Henry Mancini
“Eleanor Rigby,” by Lennon & McCartney
“Alouette,” a traditional French children’s song, performed by the Delta Rhythm Boys
“Someone You Loved,” by Lewis Capaldi
In the chorus for “Someone You Loved,” the separation of registers illustrates the singer’s longing for an imagined companion. We can hear the longed-for lover growing more tangible as the phrase unfolds. How? Each time the melody leaps to the upper register, the gestures get a bit longer until finally, the upper and lower parts conjoin, as if his lover is no longer just a dream. It’s a great example of using melodic shape to enforce the meaning of the lyrics.
My turn to write a melody
Your turn to write a melody
Using the previous video as your model, compose several melodies to either of the progressions below. (Click here for downloadable, loop-able versions of .mp3 and MIDI files.) If you’re working on staff paper, write the names of the laser patterns you’ll use above where the notes will go, just as I did. If you’re working in a DAW or notation program, you may need to jot down the laser pattern names on paper or your phone.
- Write quickly. Think in terms of whole gestures, not individual notes.
- Stay in the key/scale.
- If you get stuck coming up with melodic shapes, this link will help.
- If something sounds “off” (harsh, wrong, awkward, etc.), you might: 1. Start the same shape on a different note. (Transpose it.) 2. Swap out the note that hurts for one that doesn’t.
- If at anytime during this exercise you get an idea for a great song, QUIT THE EXERCISE and see where it leads. You can always finish the exercise another time. (In fact, the whole idea of this approach is to spur ideas you wouldn’t have come up with doing the same-old same-old.)
- Was it hard or easy to come up with melodic ideas using this approach? Why?
- How many of the melodic shapes you wrote are different than ones you typically come up with (composing as you usually do)? In what ways?
- What are some advantages and disadvantages to starting with shapes to make a melody?
Find two melodies you wrote in the last few months that you’re not 100% happy with. Maybe they’re not exactly boring, but let’s just say they wouldn’t get the kitty off the couch? Identify two patterns (probably the first two, unless your melody doesn’t get dull until a bit later). Try switching out the second gesture for another shape that contrasts your first in a more interesting (playful) way. If your first attempt doesn’t sound fantastic, try a different shape. Don’t forget to hold still or make a straight line somewhere in your melody. Very effective!
Points for review
- As soon as a melody begins, the human brain starts trying to predict where it might go next.
- Even serious melodies are “playful” in their aim to catch and hold the listener’s attention by combining intriguing shapes, expectation, and surprise.
- The specific laser dot patterns used in this lesson are merely suggestions for how to build intriguing melodic shapes. You’ll do best to think of “Laser Dot Melody” as a general approach rather than a strict method.
- Get rid of the idea that holding still in a melody (or repeating notes) is boring. Most of the melodies used as examples in this lesson contrast motion with stasis.
- If you don’t have any fun writing your melodies, how will players have fun playing them? And how will audiences have fun listening to them?