By “the old phrases,” Berlin meant that a handful of common melodic patterns (i.e., melodic figures – 24 in all) form the entire “vocabulary” of melody. In other words, J.S. Bach, John Lennon, and Taylor Swift used the same “language” to create their own unique musical sound!
“Are you serious?” you exclaim.
And to that, I say, “Let’s see.”
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.’The arrangement you’ll hear 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.
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.
Now it’s our turn to build something with melodic figures!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
Here’s the same melody arranged in classical style.