Melodic Building Blocks: Musical Legos?

melodic building blocks are like legos

In this blog, we take two melodic building blocks from “London Bridge” and “play with them like Legos” to make several new melodies in a variety of styles.

To begin, let’s hear what a master songwriter has to say about “musical Legos.” Irving Berlin wrote over 1500 songs, the scores for 20 original Broadway musicals, and 15 Hollywood films, including White Christmas. Here’s how he described composing:

melodic building blocks irving berlin

What did Berlin mean by “the old phrases?” That a handful of common melodic patterns (i.e., melodic figures) have formed the “vocabulary” that Bach, John Lennon, and Taylor Swift have used to create their own unique musical sound. How is this possible?

Playtime.

One of the most fitting verbs for music is “play.” Performers play music. But so do composers. Composers play with melodic figures in the same way that kids play with Legos. First, we begin having an idea of what we want to build. Next we find some “blocks” (melodic figures) and begin fiddling around with them. From there, we construct a basic shape. And finally, if our melody doesn’t feel just right, we can easily switch out one melodic building block for another.

For instance, let’s imagine that “London Bridge” were made from three musical Legos, labeled here as ‘a,’ ‘b’, and ‘c.’

melodic building blocks simple demo

This arrangement of the song is by American composer Charles Ives.

A closer look at two melodic building blocks in this song.

In the ‘a’ figure, notes 1 and 3 are the same. Between them we hear a neighbor tone. From there, the notes keep moving by step in the same direction. You’ve likely used this figure in your own music! In my catalog of melodic figures, I call this one the “Crazy Driver” because it swerves left before turning right and vice-versa.

melodic building blocks crazy driver

The ‘b’ figure is a 3-note scale. (This figure needs no explanation.) And finally, the ‘c’ figure is an arpeggio.  It’s not a full one, mind you, but the entire figure contains only chord tones.

Time to “build something! (Let’s compose a melody)

For this game of musical Legos, we’ll use two of the figures from “London Bridge.” As we work, I’ll highlight the Crazy Driver figures in blue and the 3-Note Scale figures in green. Watch how I string them together. There’s really no trick to it. I simply follow one with another, then listen. Usually, it sounds pretty good. (Remembering it’s a draft takes a lot of pressure off.)

melody #1 – rough draft

compose melody with melodc building blocks

Here’s the same melody arranged in classical style.

melody #2 – rough draft

compose melody musical building blocks

melody #2 – with the rhythm jazzed up a bit

melodic building blocks for jazz

I just noticed something. I put the ‘b’ figures together in a way that makes an ‘a’ figure in the middle. (This is marked below the staff with blue brackets.) Cool!

melodic building blocks like legos

It’s often easiest to sketch in “straight” rhythm, then toy with the rhythm later. That’s what I did in the first two melodies. But if you’re not intentional about revising your rhythm (it’s easy to fall in love with your first version), this can lead to melodies that “keep on going” as mindlessly as the Energizer bunny.

Remember to vary the rhythm when working with melodic building blocks.

That’s why it’s also good to think of rhythm while sketching. Here, your goals can be quite general. For example, we know that quite a few melodies alternate activity with pauses. So from here forward, I’ll include some rhythmic space as I make my rough drafts.

melody #3 – rough draft

compose with two melodic building blocks

melody #3 – in a contemporary piano style

contemporary style melodic building blocks

melody #4 – rough draft

simple way to compose melody

Now that same melody arranged as a gentle (sappy?) ballad.

Your Challenge: compose something using melodic building blocks.

My four tunes barely scratch the surface of what’s possible with the two melodic Legos I pulled out of our toybox today. So how about YOU compose two more?

You can play this game in two ways. After you choose a key and a meter:
1) just start putting figures together and let the harmony go where it will, or
2) start with a harmonic progression and adjust the figures to fit.

As for chords, you might work over a familiar formula. (e.g. I-vi-ii-V. or i-VII-VI-V or any progression you’re fond of.) Or you can borrow a chord progression from another song. The most important thing is that you HAVE FUN!

Feel free to post comments about your experience, or a link to your results below.

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David Fuentes
David Fuentes

A composer, author, clinician, and professor for over 30 years, Dr. Fuentes has 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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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. 

©2020 David Fuentes. No portion of this material may be used without permission from the author.

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