Melodic Building Blocks: Musical Legos?

melodic building blocks are like 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

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.’

melodic building blocks simple demo 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.

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.

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

compose melody with melodc building blocks

Here’s the same melody arranged in classical style.

melody #2 – rough draft

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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Each chapter in this 300-page eBook will help you observe what music makers do intuitively. The examples break everything down into step-by-step instructions so you can 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: davidfuentesmusic.com, which also provides a longer bio.

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