Look at the boy in this picture. Every inch of his 8-year-old being is totally absorbed in building his helicopter. If one lego doesn’t quite feel right, no problem. He just pops in another one. And if you ask him why he spends countless hours with his legos, he’ll interrupt his flow state just long enough to say, “Because it’s fun.”
A common pitfall for composers is that we take what we do too seriously—especially when we start a new song. Grand aspirations quash spontaneity every time. Sound familiar?
Performers use a word for music-making that composers need to adopt. They “play” music. In this post, I show composers how to to take that verb literally.
Which way to the melodic toy store?
The composer 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 (i.e., melodic figures) became the “vocabulary” that Bach, John Lennon, and Taylor Swift have used to create their own unique musical sound. How is this possible?
There are only so many ways to combine chord tones with non-chord tones. (As I say this, I assume that you recognize that most notes in a melody are chord tones, with non-chord tones added in to keep things interesting. Otherwise, every song would sound like a doorbell.)
the 24 common melodic figures
(the building blocks of melody)
To see an interactive version of this table—one that includes examples of each type of figure—click here.
London Bridge Was Built With Melodic Legos!
No wonder it fell down? I’ve labeled three melodic figures in this graphic. They happen to be prime examples of patterns you can find in the table of melodic figures above. I bear no illusion that whoever wrote this tune was consciously aware of the patterns that they used. But that doesn’t mean that the melody is not built of patterns we find in countless other songs. And that’s the basic story of composition. We don’t invent the basic material, we rework basic material into something new.
“London Bridge is Falling Down” (traditional)The arrangement you’ll hear is by American composer Charles Ives.
Let’s take a closer look at the melodic building blocks in this song. The name for the first 4-note figure comes from the way it approaches the “5th” note—the first note of the next figure. Think of the way some people swerve into the left lane before making a right turn into their driveway.
The derivation of the 3-note Scale needs no further explanation. Neither should the Arch, unless you are thrown by the fact that it’s the only figure that spans two bars? I explain the rhythmic dimension of figures elsewhere. For now, suffice it to say that the words, “my fair lady,” constitute one idea. And that seems the simplest way to parse out figures here.
Ready to play with melodic building blocks?
I know that I haven’t explained much at all about melodic figures. But any respectable kid would never wait for an explanation. She’d push her way past the adults and start tinkering! So in honor of the universal kid spirit, let’s do the same!
For our game of musical Legos, we’ll use just two of the figures from “London Bridge.” As we work, I’ll highlight the 3-Note Scale figures in blue and the Crazy Driver figures in red. As far as “process,” I’ll simply string a few together and see how they sound. No pressure to sound good on the first try, remember?MELODY #1 – rough draft
I just noticed something. I put the 3-Note Scale figures together in a way that creates a Crazy Driver in the middle. Cool! It often happens that new, unforeseen patterns emerge when playing with melodic figures.
Want a tip about rhythm when working with melodic building blocks?
Melodies #1 & 2 give a good picture of how I sometimes compose. I’ll sketch in a very “straight” rhythm, then toy with the durations later (as in #2) or if it feels right, I leave it (as in #1). But more often, I think of rhythm right from the start. You might want to try various methods, as well? For this next melody, my sketch includes a few long notes, which really open up the melody, especially with an added register change toward the end.MELODY #3 – rough draft
Your Challenge: Compose a melody 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 a few more?
After you choose a key and a meter, either:
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!