What is a Melodic Figure, And What Can I Do With It?

melodic-figure-definition-1200x628

Nearly all musicians use the term “melodic figure,” though not everyone means the same thing when they do. Some use it to designate something specific. Others use it more broadly. But with precious few exceptions, we only use the term “melodic figure” to refer to melodies that already exist. It’s rare to find anyone who explains how to use melodic figures to create melodies.

Why does this matter? Because as composers, we don’t merely want to locate melodic figures in other people’s melodies during a theory class. We want to know how to harness their potential as we craft our own! With this in mind, a great place to begin is to learn the various meanings of the term “melodic figure.”

“Melodic figure” can refer to: 1. A short, notable bit of melody that recurs throughout a piece of music, also called a “motive.” 2. A decorative and usually repetitive pattern that fills out an underlying musical line, also called “figuration.” 3. A group of notes that forms a smaller unit within a complete melody, akin to a phrase within a sentence. 4. A stock melodic pattern used when improvising, also called a “lick.” 5. A building block for composing melody.

Four of the five probably sound familiar. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of a melodic figure as a building block (#5), it’s because I made it up. Sort of. While the first four applications don’t identify themselves as building material for melodies, I figured it was time to put that in writing. So I did.

In each main section of this blog, I offer a composer’s perspective on each of the first four applications defined above. I also offer some practical ways to use each one as a building block. By the end, you’ll feel empowered and inspired to use melodic figures in your own melodies.

PART ONE

“MELODIC FIGURE” CAN REFER TO A “MOTIVE.”

A motive (or “motif”) is a distinct segment of melody that a composer repeats and reworks to compose longer, more complete melodies. And what makes a motive distinctive? Typically, each motive has a specific number of notes, a clear-cut rhythm, and a unique profile (or “shape”).

The most famous motive comes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (below). The first four notes leave a vivid impression. If nothing else, their incompleteness provokes – calling for further explanation. The motive’s rhythm is short-short-short-long. And the notes create a distinctive profile comprised of three repeated notes dropping to the fourth.

“Symphony #5,” I, Allegro con brio, first theme, by Ludwig van Beethoven


Beethoven 5th symphony motives

FINDING TOP-NOTCH CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS.

If you’ve ever painted a wall, you likely learned a few tricks about using a roller and brush. If you’ve painted several walls, you no doubt noticed some differences in the qualities of the paint you used. Some brands of paint are prone to drip, others cling well to a brush. Some brands cover thoroughly in one coat, others require more coats. And so on. The point is that the right materials can make a job easy and gratifying while lesser materials will make it tedious and disappointing.

Let me show you what a wise fellow Beethoven was when it came to finding top-notch construction materials. (Maybe some of his strategic thinking will prove contagious?)

Metrically, the building block for the 5th Symphony is particularly Lego-like because of the way it “snaps” together. The first three notes form a pickup to the fourth, which lands on the downbeat. That solid downbeat punch instigates the next figure, which starts immediately on the next upbeat. This link feels so innate that a series build from several subsequent motives sounds like a single well-assembled unit. As you’ll see, this feature makes it easy to build melodic lines of various shapes and lengths.

Harmonically, it’s hard to think of a more flexible figure because this motive is 75% pickup. Pickup notes rarely clash with the prevailing harmony – even when they don’t belong to it. But there’s one caveat: pickup notes must land on a chord tone.

In the first phrase. Every note is a chord tone except the Ab neighbor tones in the middle of each gesture. And those Ab neighbors fit as comfortably as the chord tones do because they land on the chord tone G.

“Symphony #5,” I, first theme


Beethoven 5th symphony motives analyzed

Have you ever wondered why Beethoven used non-chord tones instead of arpeggiation in this theme? Wonder no longer! Just try playing it that way and you’ll know immediately.

“Symphony #5,” I, first theme de-composed


Beethoven 5th symphony theme reworked

Now if you or I had tried using this motive to write this theme, we would have sketched out the the de-composed version and said to ourselves, “Eww, what a crappy motive! I think I’ll scap it and try something else.” That’s only because we haven’t yet learned how to manipulate melodic figures. So… if you have a drawer, file folder, or piano bench where you keep pretty good (or even boring) melodies you couldn’t fix but didn’t want to throw out, maybe you should try what Beethoven did? Try replacing a chord tone with a neighbor, or vice-versa.

HOW TO USE A MOTIVE AS A BUILDING BLOCK

Here are some things to try with motives you invent.

[1]    Addition: Add motives to motives like links in a chain.

One way to make a long melody from a short one is to “repeat” it several times in succession. Think of motivic repetition as adding more links to a chain or more cars to a train. As you employ this “additive process,” try to start with an overall plan for the larger structure that will emerge.

In Beethoven’s first theme, each “landing note” is a chord tone. (I’ve highlighted these in the graphic below.) The pickup notes are the next closest chord tone from above, with the exception of the Abs, which I mentioned earlier.

“Symphony #5,” I, bars 6-13


Beethoven 5th chord tomnes in theme

USAt different places in the symphony, Beethoven uses the same additive process to build other harmonic structures. It’s as if he had the downbeat notes in his mind ahead of time, and fashioned each motive to land correctly.

“Symphony #5,” bars 25-33


Beethoven 5th symphony bars 25-33“Symphony #5,” bars 110-118


Beethoven 5th symphony bars 110-118

[2]    Variation: Alter your motive slightly so that it sounds “the same, but different.”

During the transition from the first to second themes, Beethoven tweaks two elements of his motive. First, he transposes the last two notes up a third. Second, the landing note (note #4 in the motive) becomes an appoggiatura.

“Symphony #5,” I, how Beethoven varies the motive for use in a transition


Beethoven 5th transition motivic variation

Now here’s the passage made from this variation of the figure. In print, it’s not easy to recognize any similarity to the original motive. But by ear, it’s a cinch.

“Symphony #5,” transition excerpt, bars 37-44


Beethoven 5th symphony transitional melodic figures

Let’s try de-composing this transition excerpt. The graphic below shows how to make an ascending scale without altering the original 4-note motive.

“Symphony #5,” I, de-composing the motivic variation by showing a more literal version


Beethoven 5th symphony motivic variation

Remember that we found something similar with the first theme. There, the most straightforward approach used nothing but chord tones. Beethoven replaced one of the chord tone pickups with a neighbor tone pickup. Here, too. Beethoven’s appoggiaturas produce a more intensely emotional ascension than the more straightforward chord tones do.

[3]    Compression: Squash the little sucker down to one or two notes.

At several points in the symphony, Beethoven “flattens out” his motive so we hear only its rhythm. So much for the motive’s profile. In this theme, three flat iterations culminate in a final scale version of the motive. Before reading further, imagine that these are four building blocks, and you can arrange them any way you want. (E.g., flattened figure, scale figure, flattened figure, flattened figure.) Try playing with these blocks yourself. Put them in a different order each time and describe the effect. 

“Symphony #5,” third movement, second theme


Beethoven

[4]   Extrapolation: Use your motive as part of a new melody.

Composers will often embed their motive inside new themes. In other words, they build a theme by combining the main motive with other melodic material.

“Symphony #5,” first movement, second theme, bars 59-66


beethoven-5th-theme-2

Let’s focus on the first four bars for a minute. How would you describe this theme? Before I share my impressions, take a minute to find a few adjectives that fit your own.

Two adjectives I’d use to describe these first four notes are regal and triumphant. It feels like a fanfare. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s played on horns.) But the sense is also embedded in the notes. The first part of the melody uses only scale degrees 1, 4, and 5 (We’ve modulated to Bb major). These are heralding tones, heard not only in fanfares but also in church towers and doorbells.

If your adjectives for these four notes don’t match mine, no problem at all! Just be sure to trace your impressions back to the musical elements that created them. This is one of the best ways to learn to be more expressive as a composer.

[5]    Frustration: Repeat your motive exactly several times in a row.

Let’s keep exploring the way that melodic building blocks create feelings and impressions. Think about the last time you were severely frustrated. Blindingly frustrated. You couldn’t explain. You couldn’t even talk. About all you could do was growl and shake your fists. Now listen to this spot in the symphony.

“Symphony #5,” first movement, just before the first recapitulation, bars 240-252


beethoven-5th-retransition

As a composition teacher, I’ve had many a student balk at the thought of doing anything as simple as just repeating one idea over and over. They silently fear, “What will the audience think of me?”

It doesn’t seem that Beethoven had any fear of sounding like a simpleton.  

Always focus on the effect you need at each moment. Then create it using any means necessary. By limiting your options – in this case by using a motive – you are likely to find a satisfactory solution more quickly than if you leave yourself too many options.

[6]   Vocalization: Set lyrics to your motive.

A lyric becomes a candidate for a motivic melody when several of its composite phrases have the same number of syllables. In “Close to You,” that number is (usually) three. The one oddball (“suddenly appear”) is the only figure that doesn’t use the 3-note ascending motive because it has five syllables. This is hardly a criticism. The fermatas at the beginning of the song make it a little wonky. (Don’t we all feel a bit wonky when we’re trying to express love?) The next five notes restore rhythmic order.

“Close to You,” by Hal David and Burt Bacharach


Close to you motives

Notice how the accentuation of this motive shifts each time. The original version begins with a pickup. (Yes, in spite of the fermatas, it’s still a pickup.) The second set of iterations (“every time” and “you are near”) begins the first and third notes on upbeats, syncopating the pickup and the long note. And the third set of iterations (starting with “just like me”) begins the motive assuredly on the downbeat.

Why did Bacharach alter the rhythm of his motive so freely? I doubt that his main goal was variety, though he certainly does achieve that. The more obvious reason for adjusting the rhythm follows the lyrics. The natural accentuation of the words requires a shift in metric placement. So does the meaning of the words. The upbeat rhythm of “every time” and “you are near” mimics the natural way we voice a question. The second four bars offer a warm, confident answer, embodied within the melody by starting each motive on a downbeat.  

My hunch is that many songwriters use motives without even realizing it. We get a germ of an idea in our ears, and it infects the entire song. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use motives intentionally. Now that you have a better understanding of how they work, you certainly can!

PART TWO

“MELODIC FIGURE” CAN REFER TO A TOOL FOR “ELABORATION.”

There’s a technique in music called “figuration,” where we flesh out an underlying musical framework by adding decorative, repetitive, and usually fast patterns. We call each iteration of the pattern a figure. In this next excerpt, the ornamental figure is a scale. I’ve highlighted the underlying framework for your eyes, though it’s quite easy to hear.

“Piano Sonata,” K.545, I. by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


mozart-k545-passage-work

The next excerpt also uses scales to embellish an underlying framework.

“Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” by Ed and Patsy Bruce


ALT

Despite some similarity to K. 545, no one would equate the flamboyant scales in the Mozart with the unassuming figures in “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” I don’t say this out of any Mozart snobbery. Quite the opposite. The very first phrase of Mozart’s Sonata opens up a delicate meditation on a sublime topic. But everything changes in bar 5. Out of nowhere, it’s as if a crazed guitarist jumps onstage to play a shred solo! We patiently wait for the showboating to finish so we can get back to the subject of our musical meditation. Listen again with this in mind.

play Mozart's melodic figures on guitar

In contrast, the scales in “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies” are neither ornamental nor interruptive. We still have melodic figures atop a simple framework, but these figures play a leading role in the main “story.”

“Norwegian Wood” has the same framework as “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies.” And both songs begin the same way. But rather than repeating a scale figure between the framework notes, “Norwegian Wood” inserts a different melodic figure each time.

“Norwegian Wood,” by Lennon and McCartney


Norwegian wood analyzed

Why does this matter? Because it shows that melodic figures don’t have to behave in a patterned or repetitive way. Notice something. I’ve deliberately shifted away from the traditional way of thinking about melodic figuration as merely adding ornaments to a melodic framework. Traditional figuration (i.e., adding flashy, ornamental figures) remains an option that you’ll want to use where appropriate. BUT – the principle of adding figures to a framework is what opens the way to use all sorts of melodic figures as building blocks. Let’s look at a few.

HOW CAN WE USE FIGURES OVER A FRAMEWORK AS BUILDING BLOCKS?

Some questions contain their own answer. Like the one in this heading. Melodic figures display their true nature – their “building-blockiness” – when they work in tandem with a melodic framework. The question is, which types of frameworks prove most useful for building melodies?

We’ve already seen several when we looked at the motives in Beethoven’s 5th! What I’d like to do now is build different melodies over those same frameworks. I’ll use figures from “Norwegian Wood” as my building blocks. Here’s a quick explanation of each 3-note figure. (The repeating pattern here consists of a dotted half note plus a 3-note figure.) The names come from a table you’ll see later in this post.

Norwegian wood figures analyzed

Here are a few possibilities for useful frameworks you might try. You may notice that all of these frameworks appeared in Section One on motives.

[1]    Make a melodic framework from an arpeggio.

figures written over a framework of chord tones from G harmony


Norwegian wood variation 1

[2]    Make a melodic framework from a scale.

figures written over ascending and descending scales


Norwegian wood variation 2

[3]    Make a melodic framework from a series of intervals.

Of the examples that I worked out for this demonstration, this one the least singable. Look at that range! But to be fair, it’s hard to make a melodic framework from equally-spaced intervals other than thirds (as in the original version of “Norwegian Wood”) or seconds (as in the scales in the previous example).

figures written over a series of descending 5ths


Norwegian wood variation 3

[4]   Make a melodic framework from chord tones in a progression.

Songwriters unknowingly use this option. A lot. What else is singing over a progression but anticipating the upcoming chord tone and finding a cool way to get there?

figures written over a framework based on the “Axis of Awesome” progression


Norwegian wood variation 4

About the last framework note (C). It’s the only framework note we’ve encountered that’s not on a strong beat. What’s happening here? We have an appoggiatura on the downbeat. One way to mark framework tones that are displaced by appoggiaturas is to show the displacement as I have here.

PART THREE

“Melodic figure” can refer to a group of notes that forms a smaller unit within a complete melody.

This time, let’s just jump right in! Take another look-listen to “Close to You” and see if the heading above fits with your musical perceptions.

“Close to You,” once again, to see if you can spot the figures


close to you analyzed

In “Close to You,” a pause signals the end of each figure. I call this “bordered by time” (BBT). Sometimes that pause takes the form of a long note, sometimes a rest. Repetition is the other common way to musically mark where a melodic figure begins. I call this “marked by repetition” (MBR). My labels in the score below indicate when we recognize that a figure ends or begins.

“Close to You,” with figures labeled


close to you melodic figures analyzed

It’s easy to understand how adding time separates the end of one figure from the beginning of the next. But repetition needs some explanation. The instant we hear a pattern begin anew, a little LED light goes off in our brains to signal: “Hey! Isn’t that the same figure again!”

This will become clearer in an excerpt without extra time between figures. In the bridge for “Close to You,” the first repetition is at pitch, the second transposed up.

“Close to You,” bridge


close-to-you-bridge

WHY DO MELODIES SUBDIVIDE INTO SMALLER UNITS?

The  melodies subdivide into shorter units is not a convenient option. It’s necessary. The human brain is a “sense-making” (or “order-seeking”) apparatus. More specifically, the human brain is a “pattern-dependent,” “order-seeking,” “sense-making” apparatus. Feed too much unrelated information into your pattern-dependent, “order-seeking,” “sense-making” apparatus all at once, and it gives up. Wanna try it?

“A Bunch of Notes Pretending to be a Melody”


randm melody

How much can you remember of what you heard? This “melody” is not only unpatterned, but it’s also directionless. If you’re not quite sure what I mean by directionless, listen to the audio again, but this time don’t look at the written music. Can you “follow” the melody? By that, I mean, can you anticipate (sense) where it’s headed?

When listeners can’t anticipate a melody, they can’t participate in the music. It won’t move them. And that’s why it’s essential to realize that …

ALL MELODIES CONTAIN SMALLER UNITS OR “FIGURES.”

Sometimes the melodic figures within a melody practically jump out at you, as I’ve just shown in “Close to You.” Other times, the figures that make up a melody are hellish to find. (That is until I show you a little secret, which makes it a cinch!)

The first phrase of Toto’s song, “Africa,” breaks into two shorter figures. The slight pause on the word “drums” is enough to qualify as a time border. The second phrase, however, lacks either pauses or repetition. Given such a long uninterrupted, unpatterned string of notes, how is the old grey matter to do its job of “sense-making?”

“Africa,” by Toto


Africa figures

The 16-notes in the second part of this melody are easy to follow. Yet as I listen, I don’t find any obvious audible or visual cues for where it divides into smaller figures or phrases. But there happens to be something that our brains can use to cut the melody into smaller digestible bites.

Here’s the melody with its framework marked. The arrows I’ve drawn indicate deliberate movement toward the next “goal” note.

“Africa,”the second phrase with goal notes marked


Africa analyzed

When we consider this melody in light of the meter, we discover why our brains find it easy to follow. The first two figures (the ones that start with “she hears” and “whispers”) are practically mirror images of each other (three notes up; three notes down). The second two figures hover around C# and D.

Here’s the point. Musical meter helps the brain sort the notes of a melody into smaller units or figures.

THE METRIC FRAMEWORK INFLUENCES THE FORMATION OF MELODIC FIGURES.

The main beats in most meters subdivide naturally into groups of 2, 3, and 4. Melodies consist of more than main beats, so we ought to expect that these same subdivisions will shape the formation of melodic figures. I’ve spent a great deal of my life looking into this, I’ve found that all tonal melodies draw from the same “vocabulary” of 24 common 3- and 4-note melodic figures.

Here’s a table of the 24 melodic figures. 

the 24 common melodic figures

And here’s the second phrase of “Africa” with the melodic figures labeled.

“Africa,” the second phrase with figures labeled


Africa with melodic figures marked

Now, if you’ve played an instrument today, no doubt you’ve already played the 3-Note Scale figure several dozen times. You’ve likely played the Pivot, too, though it’s less common than the 3-Note Scale. The Pivot is an intentionally dodgy figure. I’ve been unable to find a single “straightforward” melody that uses it. Notice here how “Africa” uses the thwarting motion of the Pivot to bring attention to the hub of the phrase: the note D. And then there’s the lyrics. How does the little twist in the middle of “conversation” shape our impressions of the nature of that discussion?

The Pivot always adds the element of misdirection to a melody. In fact, each figure has its own personality traits and inclinations. Learn what each one tends to do, and you’ll have many new expressive tools for your melodies.

HOW DO WE USE THE “SMALLER BITS OF A MELODIC PHRASE” AS A BUILDING BLOCK?

In Section 3, we learned that every melody breaks down into smaller parts, which musicians casually refer to as “figures.” That melodies break down into figures isn’t only to give music theorists something to analyze. Listeners can’t make sense of melody until we can process its smaller inner patterns and intuit the relationship between them.  

I identified three separate factors that make groups of notes fall into discernable figures. 1) add time at the end of a figure, 2) repeat a pattern, and 3) complete a deliberate move to a strong beat.

The suggestions below will help you use melodic figures to add clarity and expression to each melodic phrase you write. I urge you to start a melody journal. Write in it every day. Pour over your favorite melodic phrases from your favorite songs.

[1]    Deliberately place pauses and rests as you sketch a melody.

Most people – even most composers – conceive of a melody as a continuously flowing line. Slap yourself if you need to wake up to the power of the pause within a single phrase of melody.  Slapping yourself is silly. Instead, use the following questions to train and develop your sensitivity. Take no more than a single phrase of a melody and write about one or two places where there’s a pause between figures.

  • How does the figure feel at the moment it pauses? Conclusive/complete? Edgy/incomplete? Meditative? Stream of consciousness?
  • What is the lyric at that point? Does the pause help shape its meaning? How?
  • What happens after the pause? That is, how does the music start moving again. With a pickup? On the beat? After a beat? Given that this is a melody you find compelling, try to pinpoint why the timing works so well.

[2]    Deliberately repeat melodic figures within a melodic phrase.

Rid yourself of the notion that repetition = boredom. In music, repetition can produce dozens upon dozens of effects. Or better, without repetition, many effects in a melody become impossible to achieve.

That said, sometimes you don’t know what will happen until you experiment (play) with your materials. That fits, because melodic figures – our main topic under consideration – are building blocks, after all! So let yourself PLAY with all sorts of repetition: repeating a melodic figure at pitch, transposed, slightly-varied, and etc.

Scan your favorite melodies for melodic figures marked by repetition (preferably without pauses).  

[3]    Learn the basic vocabulary of common melodic figures.

If you think that all your melodies sound the same, analyze several, and see which of the figures you overuse. Find some from the table and fiddle around with them.

In your melody journal, take some notes on how your favorite composers use the common melodic figures. Every great melody contains a valuable lesson! Find it and write down what you learned.

[4]   Keep developing your understanding of meter and frameworks.

The notion of melodic figures moving to and from strong beats is more inspiring than you can possibly imagine until you begin to tap into it.

  • Use pickups to your advantage. Often, a melodic figure that sounds stodgy when starting smack on a beat will come alive when preceded by a pickup. And remember that pickups can vary in length.
  • Experiment with syncopation vs. straight rhythm.
  • Try revising some of your melodic figures by dotting some of the steadily-moving notes.

PART FOUR

A MELODIC FIGURE CAN REFER TO A “LICK.”

There are at least three ways to think about licks.

[1]    To some musicians, a lick is an extraordinarily fast and impossible-sounding configuration.

In this next excerpt, taken from a short manual for bass players, deft execution of the sextuplets will impress anyone, guaranteed!

“Stan the Man,” (mid-solo) by Victor Wooten


stan the man solo

[2]    To others, a lick is any well-executed phrase in an improvised solo.

Bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker laid down thousands of intriguingly-shaped phrases, often referred to as “licks.” Their elegance and imagination makes them perfect models for anyone hoping to learn the style. I found this phrase on a blog post called, “Charlie Parker for Guitar” on Jazz Guitar Online.

“ii-V-I lick,” by Charlie Parker


ii-V-I lick by charlie-parker

[3]    But we all recognize that there are “licks that stick.”

Here we’re talking about shorter bits of melody; actual figure-length bits of melody rather than entire phrases. These gold nuggets of sound manage to capture the defining musical features of a style, as well as its ethos. It’s this third type of lick I’d like to explore together.

The most famous lick, known as “The Lick,” comes from jazz, though when you click on the sound file, you’ll hear that it’s not just jazzers who have fun with it.

“The Lick.”


”The Lick”

To create a “licky” lick, a musician transforms something utterly generic into something that pops. While there’s no formula for achieving this, there is something that most memorable licks do. It’s more of an approach than a technique. Once I show you what makes this sort of lick so intriguing, you can transform a normal melodic figure into something that will set your melodies apart.  

So what’s the secret? Add a melodic plot twist.

Here’s how. Set up a melody that sounds like it “wants” to go a particular way, but don’t  let it. For example, “The Lick” starts with a Run (using names from my table of common melodic figures). The most logical destination for a Run is to continue the scale (A). Another obvious outcome is to hook back by step (B). But leaping in contrary motion to the scale interrupts it, causing an intentional “bump” (accent) on the note E (version C).

“Three outcomes of a Run,” from most to least continuous


Three outcomes of a Run

We can extrapolate further. If the creator of “The Lick” wanted to make it smooth as a baby’s bottom, he or she could have started with one of the predictable outcomes of the Run and followed through to D as follows.

“The Lick,” de-composed,” (A, B, and C carry through from the previous example.)


variations on “the lick”

Now let’s take a closer look at the second figures in each version. Both the Arpeggio and the 3-Note Scale (A and B) move in one direction only. In other words, they move directly to the note D. But the original version uses an L.H.P. It takes a circuitous route to the note D.

direct-vs-inderect-motion

But wait! There’s more!

Notice the timing. The early pacing in the lick moves in steady eighths. But the motion abruptly halts before catapulting into its final syncopated note.

direct-vs-indirect-motion

So in the span of two beats, “The Lick” manages to set up three predictable situations and break them all. First, the Run breaks its trajectory. Second, the L.H.P. dodges and darts rather than moving directly toward its goal. And third, there’s the stop-start rhythm. (Actually, stop-start-stop, but that’s awkward to say.)

I hope that this analysis of “The Lick” gives you a clear idea about what I mean when I say, “set up a melody that sounds like it ‘wants’ to go a particular way, but don’t  let it.” To do this, you need to stop thinking about predictability as merely subjective. Yes, there are times when we might disagree with our friends on whether or not so-and-so’s stage show was “totally predictable, man.” And such pronouncements are indeed a matter of opinion. But not the way we put melodic building blocks together. That’s a matter of geometry, as in “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” Each melodic figure has its own disposition and inclinations. Learn them, and you’ll have a powerful tool for expression at your disposal, should you wish to use it.

“LICK-LIKE” OFTEN APPEAR NEAR THE END OF A MELODIC PHRASE.

Just to remind you, this is a (rather long) blog about melodic building blocks. Presently, we’re talking about licks. Now when you improvise, I recommend drawing on the three types of licks that I’ve introduced in this section. But not so much when you compose. Here, I want you to use the mindset (setting up a “plot twist”) more than the actual material (quoting or varying a familiar lick, as improvisers so often do) when you write a melody.

Toward that end, let me give you an idea about where to focus your energy. The most common (and effective) place to engineer a lick-like plot twist is at the end of a melodic phrase. I’ll use three examples from earlier in this blog as an illustration.

[1]    Charlie Parker

We hear smooth motion for the first three beats of this phrase. (By smooth, I mean that if you had a car that drove like this, you’d never sell it.) But not at the end of the ascending Arpeggio where we get a sudden, unexpected leap down to G. Rather than taking the most direct route to the Bb that starts bar 3 (the notes in green), Parker drops the entire figure down a third.  

“ii-V-I lick,” by Charlie Parker


ii-V-I lick with melodic figures analyzed

Then Parker embellishes the ending with an overly-exuberant tag (the notes that come after the landing note, Bb on beat 1). The high F comes from nowhere. It’s easily the highest note by far. Also, notice the rhythmic break followed by syncopation.

All in all, we have the same “plot-twisting” elements we found in “The Lick”: (1) the broken trajectory of a melodic figure (the Arpeggio), (2) indirect motion (Bb-F-Bb), and (3) a sudden halt in rhythm followed by syncopation.

[2]    Lennon and McCartney

The first phrase of “Norwegian Wood” repeats a 2-bar gesture three times. That gesture includes a dotted half followed by a 3-note figure. The first iteration (with the 3-Note Scale) is the most direct. The next two iterations get progressively indirect. (The most direct versions appear in green notes.)

“Norwegian Wood,” with more directly moving melodic figures


ALT

The L.H.P. figure doesn’t so much break the trajectory of the line as bend it with indirect motion to get to the G (on “say”). So, as far as plot twists, we hear two mild ones in bar 4.

But do we get any rhythmic change in this phrase? It seems not, because the rhythmic pattern – dotted half note, three quarter notes – never changes. BUT the rate at which we move from note to note DOES CHANGE!

The 3-Note Scale and the L.H.P. both create scalar (or scale-like) motion fron note to note. In other words, the melody line is always moving forward toward the next goal (even if somewhat indirectly in the case of the L.H.P.) But not the Pendulum! In fact, that’s the whole purpose of a Pendulum figure. Its middle note (C) delays the passing motion from the first note (F) to the third note (E). In effect, the F doesn’t move for two beats. This delay means that the rhythm does indeed change!

[3]    And Toto, too?

Three notes up, three notes down make for a steady, balanced, non-eventful opening of this phrase. Moving on, the C# digs beneath the surface, literally and emotionally. So where’s it headed? The first indication is that it’s going further down, but then that motion gets interrupted as the line pivots to D#. Then a smooth ride home on another 3-Note Scale to the C#.

“Africa,” by COMPOSER


Africa by Toto—unexpected melodic pivot

Two aspects of the rhythm contribute to the powerful plot twist at the end of this phrase. The D# is far longer than any note thus far. But it also feels shorter? The meter change is hardly a formality.

But perhaps the most potent factor in this plot twist is something we haven’t yet talked about: the harmony. The chord on the last note (A major) doesn’t come from the key of the song (B major). It’s entirely unexpected. Like a friend showing up out of the blue with ice cream to share is unexpected.

HOW TO USE A LICK AS A BUILDING BLOCK

The first three sections of this blog focused on construction – how to build a melody from melodic figures. In this section, I want to focus on character – Techniques that might give a melodic figure that’s already in place more personality and intrigue.

[1]    Find a prime spot in your melody (usually toward the end).

[2]    Take one, two, maybe three figures and engineer a plot twist.

Locate the destination of that part of the phrase. In most cases, this will be the final note. Find the most natural way to get there. BUT TAKE SOME OTHER ROUTE! Interrupt the connection between figures. Change registers. Add a wackadoodle note. Switch out one figure for another if that helps.

[3]    Experiment with the rhythm.

How should you change up the pacing at the end? Add faster notes? Interrupt the rhythm? Add syncopation? Introduce some means of delaying the motion without stopping it?

Points for Review

  • The term “melodic figure” is useful to theorists as they talk about motives, elaborative patterns, smaller parts of a melodic phrase, or licks. More importantly for composers, we can use each type of figure as a building block for melody.
  • A motive  is a distinct segment of melody that a composer repeats and reworks to compose longer, more complete melodies.
  • The word “figuration” often refers to decorative figures added to a simple framework.
  • By taking the principle of adding figures to a framework, we discover the main way that all melodic figures act as building blocks for a melody.
  • Musical meter helps the brain sort the notes of a melody into smaller units or figures. Strong beats are the most common place to station the notes in a melodic  framework.
  • To  buid a melody from a motive, we attach them to a framework of chord tones, a scale or other pattern of intervals, or lyrics. We can do the same thing with any type of melodic figure.
  • By examining licks, we get fantastic ideas for how to make common melodic figures “pop” so we can add plot twists to make melodies more memorable and expressive.

Want to go further? You CAN!

Each chapter in this 300-page eBook breaks down everything that expert music makers do intuitively as they create a melody. Along the way, you’ll find plenty of step-by-step instructions to help you create the same effects in your own music.

figuring out melody cover

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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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