music composer
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writing melodies tips 1 to 3 counter-melodies & chorus/verse melodies tips 4 to 6
melodic intervals & leaps tips 7 to 9

Song Structures
basic song structure examples repeated verse and AABA
pop song structures verse/chorus & bridge
pre chorus song structures verse/prechorus/chorus bridge & coda structures

Music Arranging
orchestration & midi arranging tips 1 - 3
recording & arranging tips tips 4 - 6
more music arranging tips tips 7 - 10

Becoming a composer how to become a composer tips one to five
how to become a composer tips six through to ten
how to make a demo CD tips on making and marketing your showreel

Tuitionin composing music production schools reviews of some top music production colleges in the USA how to choose a music school factors to consider when choosing where to study music composition lessons a check-list for subjects to study within music composition


writing melodies

a list of top ten tips

What is melody?
If chords are the vertical element in music, melody is the horizontal. If we could slice through time, we might be able to capture the harmony found in music, but not the melody. So melody is the linear element of music, the organisation of pitch and rhythm working together through time.

It’s very difficult to define what represents a “good” melody. What I attempt to do in the following is to look at examples of successful musical pieces and see if there are any patterns or principles that make a melody “work”.



part one - tips 1 - 3



1. The Power of Three

This is one of the most common patterns we find in melodic development. Let’s have a look at the opening lines to “Send In The Clowns” by Stephen Sondheim :-

"A motif" is the opening notes

Ab - Bb - Eb - Eb

Isn’t it rich? (A motif)
Aren’t we a pair? (A motif)
Me here at last on the ground, and you in mid-air... (A motif development)

Notice that lines 1 and 2 are the same four note melodic motif. The following line “Me here at…” has a similar rhythm and feel, but extends the idea.  This pattern of repeating a motif and then developing it also happens in the next section:-

Just when I'd stopped (A2 motif)
Opening doors (A2 motif)
Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours.
(A2 motif development)

(I’ve marked the motif A2 because it’s a development of the original idea, only a little higher in pitch).

So if you get a great idea, think about repeating it and then on the third time, see if you can develop it somehow. This principle works best for developing very short phrases e.g. four or five note ideas.



2. The Power of the Pentatonic

This is a principle true for nearly all popular sung melodies. Song melody tends to revolve around pentatonic scales. “Penta” means five,  and “tonic” means notes, so a  pentatonic scale is a series of five notes. The most common forms of pentatonic scales are the pentatonic major and the pentatonic minor. Here they are in C:-

Pentatonic Major Scale In C

Pentatonic Minor Scale In C

(from which we also have the blues scale by adding in the diminished fifth – F#)

Let’s take a look at “The Scientist” by Coldplay:-


As this is in the key of F, here are the notes to F pentatonic major:-
F – G – A – C – D

The first line of the song uses four notes from this scale, in this order:-
F – G – F – C – A
And through out the whole of the verse, it restricts itself to just these four pitches (with a variation on the pattern at line three – notice also the “power of three” at work here). Only at the chorus do we get one new pitch (D)
F – D – C – F  -  D – C – F – D – C
(To the words “Nobody said it was easy”)
And only on the final two lines of the chorus are there any other pitches in the whole of the melody (Bb and E). This restriction to just a few notes gives the song a nursery rhyme like quality, making it is easily remembered. And when the movement away from the pentatonic comes (on the last two lines) the notes have more impact, because we have been unconsciously anticipating a change such as this for a long time.



3. Write Without An Instrument

In a BBC two interview about composing, Stephen Sondheim revealed how he likes to write melodies – by lying on his back and singing. Only when he thinks he may have a strong idea, does he do any further work on it with an instrument. This is an interesting principle. If you have a melody that is not dependent on accompaniment for it work, then it’s likely that you have a strong idea.
Another example of a composer working in this way is Lionel Bart, who was unable to play an instrument, and relied on others to work out the chords for his songs. Consider the strength in the melody (and counter-melodies) of “Who Will Buy” from “Oliver!” the musical:-

The same melody works when it is presented with very sparse musical accompaniment (when Oliver sings near the beginning) and also works when the arrangement becomes more complex and elaborate towards the end of the song.

So the next time you find yourself writing a melody, why not see if you can write a whole section (or even work) without touching your instrument!



Further Reading:-

writing counter-melodies

A great way to develop your material is by composing counter-melodies. As their name suggests, these are themes which are sung (or played) at the same time as an existing melody. This page looks at how to write successful counter-melodies with reference to "One More Day" from the musical masterpiece "Les Miserable".

melodic intervals - ones to avoid and ones to go for!

This page includes guidelines for writing for community groups (such as childrens choirs and congregational worship) as well as how to create character to your material by employing more rare and exotic intervals such as the minor seventh (e.g. C up to Bb).

song form and structure

First of three pages dealing with how most songs are essentially built up from repeated sections, such as the verse, pre-chorus, chorus and bridge. The first page looks at the most simple of forms - the repeated verse structure.

music production courses in the USA

A review of some of the top music colleges in America offering degree courses in music technology and production. Also features a short write-up on Berklee, which offers online music degree awards.



writing melodies p.1 - p.2 - p.3


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