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Good Melodic Writing

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What to Avoid and What to Aim For When Writing Melody

Melodic writing can seem like a book with seven seals sometimes - how come some melodies work and others don't? While there is no obvious strategy for the element of mystery and sparks of genius in some pieces of music, there are some common elements that define what our ears find pleasant, exciting and interesting to listen to.

Broadly speaking, there are some things to avoid and some things to aim for when writing melodies. These rules of thumb have the purpose of guiding us and giving us a set of parameters to work with. Inside these parameters we can be creative and crazy all we like, but we'll know we'll be hitting some basic psychological buttons on the way too.

Arpeggiation, Skips

From a purely melodic standpoint, we want our melody to flow and have an independent existence of its own as much as possible. Arpeggiation, that is the outlining of a chord (two or three or more notes stacked in thirds) detracts from this as it merely outlines an underlying harmonic identity. Melodies that skip constantly are hard to follow for the ear and give us no rest between dramatic jumps. The effect is one of fatigue of our listening capacity and a resigned boredom/incomprehension.

What to avoid? Avoid consecutive skips.

What to do instead? Alternate skips with stepwise motion.

Repetition of Peaks

One of the key elements of a melody is its peak, that is its highest note. We should take care to reach this note only once as hearing it more than once detracts from the climactic impact of it in a major way. Note that this also applies to the trough, the lowest note of the phrase, although this can more easily be hidden by underlying accompaniment.

What to avoid? Avoid repeating peaks.

What to do instead? Have unique peaks and troughs.

Overuse of Repetition

Repetition can seem like an easy way to construct longer phrases or pieces. However, repetition of little chunks, figures and notes has the effect of lessening the impact of the gesture. Repeating individual notes especially can be problematic as we become overly used to them and get bored, irritated even.

What to avoid? Avoid too much repetition of figures, individual notes and little segments.

What to do instead? Have constantly fresh, exciting lyrical line where every element has its own identity.

Stepwise Motion

A good interplay between stepwise motion and skips is the lifeblood of good melodic writing. Constant reliance on stepwise motion creates predictability and makes us feel we know where the music is heading all the time, so we switch off and get disinterested.

What to avoid? Avoid too much stepwise motion.

What to do instead? Alternate skips with stepwise motion.

Examples of Good Melodic Writing

Good Melodic Writing - Example 1

Strong Points? There is good interplay between stepwise motion and skips (in the opposite direction) here. There is a clear peak and a clear trough and the resulting outline is varied yet not illogical.

Good Melodic Writing - Example 2

Strong Points? Good use of dramatic skips prepared by stepwise motion and vice versa. Demonstrates the power of drama versus predictability. Clear peak and trough.

Good Melodic Writing - Example 3

Strong Points? As before, alternating skips and stepwise motion. Clear peaks and troughs and rather nice large skip prepared by stepwise motion.

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