Principle #1 in the series, “The 3 Core Principles of Melody”
According to the dictionary, a melody is “a succession of single tones organized as an aesthetic whole” (Merriam Webster). So riddle me this: why doesn’t any old succession of tones sound “melodic?” Hmmmm… Could it be that the “single tones” in a melody aren’t exactly “single?”
Notes in a melody fall into recognizable patterns (or “figures”) as surely as letters in a sentence form words. In fact, saying that a melody is “a succession of single tones” is as ludicrous as saying that a sentence is “asuccessionofsingleletters.”
What if I told you that ALL THE MUSIC YOU KNOW is made from JUST 24 FIGURES?!
Sound preposterous? I don’t blame you if it does. But maybe you’ll be convinced after you hear all the music you can make with just one 4-note figure:
That’s right: every melody in this blog is made of the same 4-note building block! To keep things organized, I’ll put the main possibilities into three buckets.
1. Repeat the figure verbatim.
With this option, the figure itself has only a limited degree of allure. The musical interest depends on the accompaniment, which provides a flashy backdrop that makes the figure seem magical. (This same “staging mentality” holds true for 90% of artists who appear on the Grammys.) Here’s how our figure might sound as a loop.
In this next song (like so many others), a 4-note figure is repeated “verbatim,” though a few things do change. One iteration has a pickup. Another has a tag. All three times, the words are different. And the harmony changes more extensively than in the loop. So while we hear “exactly” the same figure several times in a row, it never sounds “exactly” the same.
Taylor Swift: “Shake It Off”
2. Vary the rhythm.
It surprised me to discover that the verses of “Shake It Off” and “Someone Like You” use the same notes. Pretty cool! Like Taylor Swift, Adelle repeats the same figure several times. The biggest difference is that Adelle is far more flexible with her rhythm.
Adelle: “Someone Like You”
How many possible rhythmic variations can we find for a 4-note figure? A number far too large to calculate. Think it through. Even when we limit the note values between a 32nd note to a whole note, we need to leave room for dots, ties, tuplets (triplets, quintuplets, septuplets, and etc.). And we can dot or tie any of the notes in those tuplets. Finally, as Adelle’s example shows, we also need to allow for repeated notes.
(Warning: rabbit trail ahead.) Ever wonder why singers often repeat the same melodic figure in their verses? Is it any coincidence how closely this resembles the way that we rattle off a list when we talk, and especially when we rant?
All three of the previous examples use exactly the same notes: E-C#-B-A. This is hardly the only version of this figure. For example, we can transpose the figure.
George J. Elvey: “Crown Him With Many Crowns”
But wait, there’s more! There are many ways to create versions of this 4-note figure that use different notes. Before we look at a few, it’ll help to “take inventory.” Rather than describe the figure exactly (down a minor 3rd, down a whole step, down another whole step), let’s take a wide-angle view.
This figure consists of a chordal leap plus a 3-note scale. Any combination of these two elements qualifies as a version of the original. The chordal leap can be any size. That leap can go up or down. The scale can go up or down. The series can run forwards or backward.
Here’s a song from a recent musical that runs our 4-note figure “backward” (or in technical terms, “retrograde.”) The 3-note scale comes first, followed by the leap.
Justin Hurwitz: “City of Stars” from La La Land
3. Vary the notes.
Let’s go further. What if we vary the chordal leap? Who says it must be in the same direction as the scale?
The result is a figure that looks quite different from the ones we’ve considered so far. But don’t let this throw you. Both figures share the same DNA. And that’s the beauty of figuration. Each figure has elements that are individual, yet universal. Specific, yet flexible.
James Lord Pierpont: “Jingle Bells”
Gotta love that kid’s “one-hearse open sleigh!”
For the last example in this section, here’s a piece by Bach made entirely of the figure we’ve been working with. Not only is there a chordal leap + a 3-note scale on every beat, Bach set up a strict pattern for himself, and maintains it through the entire piece (breaking it only in the coda). The scales on beats 1 & 3 go up, while those on beats 2 & 4 go down. Rather than sounding tedious, the pattern gives the music great momentum.
J.S. Bach: “Prelude #5” from WTC I
We’ve focused on just one figure in this blog post. You’ve seen several ways to repeat or alter it to make melody. Your challenge is to compose a 4- or 8-bar melody using the same figure. Set lyrics if you wish. Keep the rhythm constant, or vary the rhythm. Only one rule. Keep working until you really like what you come up with!