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Thread: writing melody

  1. #1
    Registered User jimc8p's Avatar
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    writing melody

    Do many people have a load of backing tracks but currently without the great melodies you intend? I have way too many. I generally want the chords to dictate the melody and not vice versa. For me the melody does have centre stage, but is there primarily to highlight the harmonic content. I'm guessing a lot of people write like this...does anyone else find melody a bit of a stumbling block?

    Anyway, I thought it would be good to share some methods for writing melody. Here's a couple of trial and error methods I use to get melodic inspiration...

    guitar
    1. record the progression and loop it back
    2. record improv over the top a bunch of times
    3. cut out all of the decent phrases to create a load of scattered melodic fragments
    4. even out the chunks to the nearest division of the bar
    5. drag them to their appropriate places within one or two loops of the progression
    6. hopefully you should be left with some very nice longer phrases you can tweak and adapt
    keyboard

    A
    • record the progression and loop it back
    • transpose a track to put the key scale on the white keys
    • continue from point 2 above
    B
    • record the progression and loop it back
    • think of some vocal melody from any old corny pop song
    • record the phrasing only (midi)
    • alter the notes in your sequencer according to the progression
    • (generally speaking, I always seem get good and original sounding results by ripping off phrasing when improvising with any instrument.)
    sing

    • record the progression and loop it back
    • set up a vocal track with an automatic tuner plugin and set everything to 11 (if your singing voice is anything like mine)
    • Limit the notes as constricively as you want...it's sometimes very interesting to limit notes to just 3, 4 or 5.
    • continue from point 2 above
    • make sure you delete the original takes, ha
    Anyone used any of these methods before? Got any others?

  2. #2
    Registered User bluesking's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jimc8p
    Do many people have a load of backing tracks but currently without the great melodies you intend? I have way too many. I generally want the chords to dictate the melody and not vice versa. For me the melody does have centre stage, but is there primarily to highlight the harmonic content. I'm guessing a lot of people write like this...does anyone else find melody a bit of a stumbling block?

    Anyway, I thought it would be good to share some methods for writing melody. Here's a couple of trial and error methods I use to get melodic inspiration...

    guitar
    1. record the progression and loop it back
    2. record improv over the top a bunch of times
    3. cut out all of the decent phrases to create a load of scattered melodic fragments
    4. even out the chunks to the nearest division of the bar
    5. drag them to their appropriate places within one or two loops of the progression
    6. hopefully you should be left with some very nice longer phrases you can tweak and adapt
    keyboard

    A
    • record the progression and loop it back
    • transpose a track to put the key scale on the white keys
    • continue from point 2 above
    B
    • record the progression and loop it back
    • think of some vocal melody from any old corny pop song
    • record the phrasing only (midi)
    • alter the notes in your sequencer according to the progression
    • (generally speaking, I always seem get good and original sounding results by ripping off phrasing when improvising with any instrument.)
    sing
    • record the progression and loop it back
    • set up a vocal track with an automatic tuner plugin and set everything to 11 (if your singing voice is anything like mine)
    • Limit the notes as constricively as you want...it's sometimes very interesting to limit notes to just 3, 4 or 5.
    • continue from point 2 above
    • make sure you delete the original takes, ha
    Anyone used any of these methods before? Got any others?
    I'm quite like you. I have a hard time composing melodies. When our singer comes to me with a melody, I can really have fun harmonising it, we have written some of our best songs this way.

    I can't just write a melody with no chord backing to inspire me like he can though. I usually have to come up with a chord loop and then either sing or just noodle a melody over the top. When I have repeated the melody 3/4 times I try to go to a different note to create the feeling of the next section of the tune. I then harmonise this note with a cool sounding chord. After that, I just work with the chords a bit more untill I have a "B" section harmonised and once again, do the melody by trial & error.
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  3. #3
    bitter old fool Jed's Avatar
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    BuzzKill Alert:

    Songs start with the melody. The trick is learning how to harmonize a melody. Not the other way around.

    cheers,

  4. #4
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    I tend to believe that melody is just one of those things that some people have a knack for, while others tend to have to work a little bit harder to get an ear for it. Probably the number one issue I run into when producing/recording inexperienced acts is the weakness of their melodies. But I also think that we all have strengths and weaknesses, depending on what draws our ear in music. For me, melodies and rhythms seem to come relatively easily, but I have a really tough time coming up with more complex, interesting chord progressions. I think any of these skills can be learned, but some people are just drawn more towards particular musical elements in their formative listening years, and that often proves to be their strength later in life. Just my pet theory, though.
    Last edited by studiorat81; 10-01-2009 at 04:54 PM.

  5. #5
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jed
    BuzzKill Alert:

    Songs start with the melody. The trick is learning how to harmonize a melody. Not the other way around.

    cheers,
    Personally I agree, but songs (esp in rock) are often written the other way round, and can be quite successful. ("Good" being a matter of taste of course .)

    IMO - all other things being equal - melody-first is the most efficient, quickest way of coming up with something satisfactory.
    But chords-first can work too. It just often seems to lead down dead ends, or into cliches. (Those damn 4-chord cycles you find all over the place in contemporary rock - man that gets tedious. )

  6. #6
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by studiorat81
    For me, melodies and rhythms seem to come relatively easily, but I have a really tough time coming up with more complex, interesting chord progressions.
    Not a drawback.
    "Complex, interesting chord progressions" are really only of interest to other musicians. Untrained listeners/audiences couldn't give a damn. Good melodies and rhythms are what works. (Harmony does have an impact, but less than we often like to think. And triadic stuff is usually all that's needed.)

    Also, it's easy (I know from experience ) to get sidetracked and wallow in dense chord textures, forgetting what the song is supposed to be about. It tends to happen (I find) when the tune seems to lack something, and fancy chords seem to be the answer. They ain't!
    I'm always struggling to keep songs simple. That's the hardest thing, and why I stand in awe of geniuses of simplicity like Dylan and Neil Young.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    Not a drawback.
    "Complex, interesting chord progressions" are really only of interest to other musicians. Untrained listeners/audiences couldn't give a damn. Good melodies and rhythms are what works. (Harmony does have an impact, but less than we often like to think. And triadic stuff is usually all that's needed.)

    Also, it's easy (I know from experience ) to get sidetracked and wallow in dense chord textures, forgetting what the song is supposed to be about. It tends to happen (I find) when the tune seems to lack something, and fancy chords seem to be the answer. They ain't!
    I'm always struggling to keep songs simple. That's the hardest thing, and why I stand in awe of geniuses of simplicity like Dylan and Neil Young.
    WARNING: The following statements may be considered sacrilegious by some. I do no intend to offend anybody, and apologize in advance if I do.


    I would have to agree with you there. In fact, that is probably why I have never been partial to most jazz music. The use of so many complex chords just doesn't appeal to my ear. In my own playing, I rarely expand past adding a 7 or a 9 just because it seems to detract from the purity of the melody. Maybe that makes me a simpleton to some folks, but I like simple. I'm a firm believer in the KISS method. A good melody, a strong story, and a solid foundation to lay it all on; it's a timeless formula that still works. I think people who try to paint all mainstream popular music as simple and dull just aren't hearing what's in between the lines. A great musician can do as much within the confines of a basic I-IV-V as he can with something more complex...it's all about taste.

    And don't get me wrong, there are many jazz standards that I consider timeless and love just as much as any other type of music...I just think that a lot of modern jazz tends to intellectualize music too much for my tastes. For me, I connect to music primarily on an emotional level, and if intellect gets involved, it usually stems from the lyrics.

    Again, sorry if I offended anybody.

  8. #8
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    ya complexity of chord structure to me doesn't matter. i find some people might judge music too much from a theoretical standpoint.

    you wouldn't judge a meal by how many ingredients they used, or a painting by how many colors they used.

    if it tastes good, then it's good. if it looks good, then it's good.

    i find music is that way. some complex chord structure songs are good, some really simple ones are good.


    for me when i write harmony it's kind of like what the OP said, except i don't do all that cutting and pasting, i just freestyle over something, try this and try that until i find a melody i like and then stick with it.

    I usually come up wit hthe chords first, although it has happened to me to write lyrics first and then write chords to fit with a melody i like, creating the chord structure and the melody all at once. and that worked well for me, but i tend to do the chords first mostly because lyrics/ message content/ topic, are more hard to come by for me than progressions and riffs and stuff.

    songs don't start with the melody, songs start however the writer starts them. some like to start them one way, some like to start them another.

    the process is not what matters. what matters is the end result. different people are different and do things differently.

    what i like about doing chords first is you them get a framework of freedom where you can try a bunch of melodies and really try for something fresh and interesting.

    harmonizing a melody is a fun way to go also, but unless i have it recorded i am liable to lose the melody idea while hunting for a fun harmony for it.

    idk, it's just more rare for me to do it that way around. finding a fun chord progression and then cool melody for it is kind of just easier, and more fun in a way, unless the melody is truly lyrics you wrote and not and instrumental one, because playing just a melody on an instrument i find is too boring, if ever i was going that route i'd just harmonize it right away and it would skip being a melody and go straight to being a chord progression. and then i'd probably end up writing another melody on top of it that i'd try to complement it with. now that i think of it, it's rare that i'll imagine a melody without imagining chords behind it. really the chords behind the melody affect the way it sounds alot. in fact if your melody is exactly the major scale, the chords you use will change it so much there are 7 names of styles it can be changed to. and to write a melody and then harmonize into a different mode would be weird. melodies, to me, in order to be really what they are, need the background, to a certain extent at least.

    melody is often kind of just extra notes played upon regular minor or major chords if you know what i mean, so in a way, if you're writing a chord progression using diddlies and 4+ note chords, then you're sort of writing a melody also.

    except you might be writing one, and the rewriting it, and rewriting it as you improvise, and then you just pick one you've improvised that loops well.

    usually if i'm improvising and then i find something i like to repeat a few bars and it moves me and goes real well with the groove of the tune, then i've found my melody.
    Last edited by fingerpikingood; 10-01-2009 at 08:06 PM.

  9. #9
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by fingerpikingood
    songs don't start with the melody, songs start however the writer starts them. some like to start them one way, some like to start them another.

    the process is not what matters. what matters is the end result. different people are different and do things differently.
    I don't think anyone mentioned starting with the story. In Country without a story to tell there is no reason for the song. The story leads to the lyrics. Lyrics lead to the verse structure. The verse structure leads to the chord progressions The chord progression moves the verse through it's rest, tension, climax and resolution journey each verse must take. Next step involves harmonizing the melody with the chords --- but, at this stage I do not yet have the melody. True I will rely upon chord tones for the main stay of my melody - but I have one more process to go through before I get to melody.

    Keyboard time now. Sitting at the keyboard reciting the lyrics and picking a note for else lyric word develops the melody. At the same time taking notice of harmonizing both melody and chord.

    Stumbled on this from the way PianoMagic talks about picking out a tune by ear on the keyboard. Finding the first note for the first lyric word is the first step. I was amazed how this one thing pulls everything into focus. Once you have the first note and the first word working together everything from there is just up scale or down scale -- the next note is normally not all that far up or down scale. Taking a lyric word and finding the melody note that sounds right ends up being a song.

    Ditto what matters is the end result.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 10-01-2009 at 08:45 PM.

  10. #10
    Registered User jimc8p's Avatar
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    Writing melody first works in a few contexts, but by no means all. It's a great approach, but is quite old fashioned. By that I mean it very much suits classic song writing... as in sing-songy tunes or the complexly functional old songs from the dawn of Pop. This of course includes many of the later Jazz standards conceptually speaking. Here, melody really is king because it is part and parcel of the functioning key. I do like this music, and I occassionally try to write it. How do others go about doing this? I personally find singing the easiest...although I've lost (forgotten) so many ideas this way too.

    Anyway, for me I'm more into the modern, what I would describe as 'modal' concept. That is simple, meditative tonalities that abandon most of the old fashioned functional cliches. This would describe the majority of modern rock, a lot of pop and most of their permutations. In this context the harmony is the big deal, the melody is simply seasoning it. Or, I guess the melody is still the big deal but only 'through' the harmony. Take Sweet Home Alabama, , very popular, shockingly simple. Sing that melody with no backing and you'll soon see how they couldn't have written that part first

    Another thing I tend to do, (again something I imagine is popular), is riff based harmony. That is harmony but with melodic content within it. This is how most of my writing begins and so naturally the primary melody comes second. If in fact a primary melody is needed...this question is often the thing stumping me come to think of it...

  11. #11
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    I think for me, all three elements seem to come into being at pretty much the same time. I mean, I guess if you really break it down into steps, I usually start with chords, then words and melody tend to take shape together. But it all happens pretty much in the same little window. And I'll usually finish one section of the song completely before I move on to the next. Then, at some point, I start going back and revising, and often, by the time I write the last word of the outro, the whole song is done and ready to go. Working this way is usually slow and can be a bit tedious, but I feel like if I'm not molding the whole thing together at one time, some of the pieces don't really fit quite right when it's finished.
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  12. #12
    Bedroom metalurgist LaughingSkull's Avatar
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    I'm with Jim; I have done most of my stuff starting with harmony. Mostly to avoid cliches.
    'Fancy progression' can be a great playground to find fresh melodies, which otherwise would have never thought off.

  13. #13
    Registered User Madaxeman's Avatar
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    I would say both ways work, probably equally well. Depends on the style of music and the instrument. For me I always build the song with a riff or progression. There are a lot of variations of melody you can put over the same progression or riff, but in rock and metal these drive the song more. Think "Master of Puppets" without the main riff.
    For a song like "Rocky Mountain High" the melody carries the song. It wouldn't be the same if that changed.

  14. #14
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    maybe slightly off topic but! George Harrison said the best bit of advice he received from John Lennon was " While writing a song, try and finish it in one go, If you go back to it later, you may not recapture your same mood". words to that effect, when George was working on Something. ie The song.

  15. #15
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    I use the Malcolm method. Granted, we perhaps come up with different stories.

    I wrote the lyrics in about 5 minutes (about an hour ago), and when I get home I will come up with a melody. The chording will simpy be stylistic at that point. When finished in about a week, the lyrics will be completely different, and I won't recall the melody line I come up with tonight. But you have to stop talking about it at some point, and put your damned pen to paper, eh? It doesn't matter what you cobble together initially; what matters is what you end up with.



    The Widow Molly Redbud (by Jim "I was a One" Reed)

    The widow in town was called ol' Molly, they tell she was a looker in her prime,
    In the third pew almost every Sunday, and on Easter every time.
    She had a son we recall real fondly, he came home from the war in a bag,
    But before he left, he had saved ol' Molly, he started a farm just like his dad.

    Her boy, he died and didn't come home, and she thought she'd seen the end.
    The bank would foreclose and take ol' Molly, with a farm no one could tend.
    The fields went wild and weeds took over and times were looking grim
    But those of us who really knew her son had one last gift for a friend.

    Everyone knows what grows in horse weed, out behind Molly's barn,
    Though the waters rose and snows came falling, we all loved ol' Molly's farm.

    The people round here take good care of Molly, she don't have to live real hard.
    The people seem to always pay her bills, and they work for free around her barn.
    I think her shed could use a paint job, I'm gonna head out there today.
    Maybe I'll take her out for shopping, since I'll be going anyway.

    Everyone knows what grows in horse weed, out behind Molly's barn,
    Though the waters rose and snows came falling, we all loved ol' Molly's farm.




    Note: never ever apologize to someone for what you produce. Be yourself - everyone else is already taken.
    "If a child learns which is jay and which is sparrow, he'll no longer see birds nor hear them sing."

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