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:
What did Berlin mean by “the old phrases?” That a handful of common melodic patterns have formed the “vocabulary” that Bach, John Lennon, and Taylor Swift have used to create their own unique musical sound. How is this possible?
One of the most fitting verbs for music is “play.” Performers play music. But so do composers. At least if Irving Berlin is right, and I believe he is. Composers play with melodic figures in the same way that kids play with Legos. We connect this one with a few others; and if it doesn’t feel just right, we can easily switch one figure out for another.
Just because we don’t realize we’re doing this doesn’t mean that we aren’t. (I’ll have more to say about that in a future blog.) I’d like to demonstrate this in two ways.
First, we’ll take apart a simple tune to find the figures it’s made of. Then we’ll use those figures as if they were Legos and “build” some new music. De-composing London Bridge The kid’s tune “London Bridge” is made of just three figures, labeled here as ‘a,’ ‘b’, and ‘c.’
This arrangement is by American composer Charles Ives.
The ‘a’ figure uses the same tone for notes 1 and 3. The second note is a neighbor tone. After returning to the third note, it keeps moving by step in the same direction. The ‘b’ figure is a 3-note scale. The ‘c’ figure is an arpeggio.
Notice that none of my descriptions include rhythm or direction. Why not? Because in melodic figures, rhythm and direction are fully adaptable.
That’s why we can say that the last two arpeggio figures are “the same.” They are the same kind – a two-note chordal leap – even though their rhythm and direction differ.
A melodic figure can be written to fit any harmony in any meter.
The connection between composing and Legos isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. For a long time, the Lego company slogan was “Just imagine.” Then in 2002, they changed it to “Play more.” Both are great advice for composers!
Let’s build something!
So in this spirit, I took just two of the figures from “London Bridge” and made four new melodies. To make my “blueprints” clear, I’ve highlighted the ‘a’ figures in blue and the ‘b’ figures in green.
The point is not that I came up with great melodies. (They’re not!) But this was FUN! And it didn’t take much time. Besides, who knows, maybe I’ll find a reason to use one of them someday?
Truth be told, I definitely do use melodic figures when I compose. I’ll often get started by picking just a few figures to play around with. Once I have a few that seem to work together, I’ll tweak them until the line sings.
melody #1 – scratch version
Here’s the same melody arranged in classical style.
melody #2 – scratch version
melody #2 – jazzed up a bit
I just noticed something. I put the ‘b’ figures together in a way that makes an ‘a’ figure in the middle. Cool.
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 this can lead to melodies that keep on going like the Energizer bunny.
That’s why it’s also good to sketch with something “less continuous” in mind. Quite a few melodies alternate activity with pauses. So I designed the last two melodies as groups of notes with some space between, knowing I’d adjust that when I added accompaniment.
melody #3 – scratch version
melody #3 – in a contemporary piano style
melody #4 – scratch version
Now that same melody arranged as a sappy ballad.
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:
a) just start putting figures together and let the harmony go where it will, or
b) start with a harmonic progression and adjust the figures to fit.
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.