Friday, October 28, 2011

Does your song pass the a capella test?

Try singing your melody line all by itself, with no drum track, no chord instruments, no instruments at all. How well does your melody hold up a capella?

A capella (pronounced AH kuh-PELL-uh) is a musical term, originally from Italian, that means "sung without accompaniment" or "no instruments, just voices."

Not every rock melody can hold together without accompaniment. The notes might not make sense without the chord line. Rhythmic syncopations might just sound wrong if there's no steady beat for them to play against. And in some songs, the instrumental lines have all the interesting parts, and the vocal lines are little more than punctuation.

I mention all of these caveats to emphasize that it can still be a good song if it fails the a capella test. It doesn't mean you have to rewrite the song from scratch. But if all of your songs fail this test, then you are missing out on the strengths that melody writing can bring to your music.

A song that works a capella is usually one that people can sing along with easily. It's a song that's easy to remember. It sticks in people's heads. It's the kind of song that people sing to themselves while they're out walking and sing with their friends while drinking. Every album should have at a few of these.

How do you write a melody that works a capella? The most direct way is simply to write the vocal line first, and sing it out loud while you're writing it. After the melody is finished and solid, then come up with chords and the rest of the instrumental arrangement. You'll find that the rest of the writing is easy when the melody is strong enough to stand on its own.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Melody tip: Vary the length of phrases

A melodic phrase is a single line of melody. Originally a phrase was sung in a single breath by the singer, with a rest between phrases for the singer to take the next breath. Some modern-day songs use longer phrases that require more than one breath, but it helps to remember that phrasing is at least symbolically linked to breathing. A phrase is a breath of music.

One of the most effective ways to give shape and pacing to the song as a whole is to vary the length of melodic phrases. For example, you might have 4-bar phrases in the verse and 2-bar phrases in the chorus. The different phrase length gives the chorus an unmistakably different feel from the verse.

Another common formula is to use shortened phrases at the end of the verse, to create a sense of increased momentum heading into the chorus.

Many ordinary songs use 4- and 8-bar phrases all the way through. It's unfortunately so commonplace that using any other phrase length anywhere in your song will help you stand out as interesting and different. Look to the Beatles catalog for some great examples of a flexible approach to phrase length.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Melody tip: Ignore the chords

A pentatonic melody is one that uses the five-note pentatonic scale. In major, the pentatonic scale includes scale notes 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. In C major, those notes are C, D, E, G, A. Notice that there's no F or B in a C pentatonic melody.

Pentatonic minor includes notes 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7. In A minor, those notes are A, C, D, E, G. Aren't those the same notes as C major pentatonic? Indeed they are; the difference lies in whether C or A serves as the tonic (the keynote).

One interesting thing about the pentatonic scale is that it doesn't include any half-step intervals. Half-step intervals are central to musical expressions of personal emotion. Without them, pentatonic melodies have a somewhat detached, universal feel. They're great for a big crowd of people singing together.

And the second interesting thing about the pentatonic scale is that, with one narrow exception, you can use whatever chords you want and it doesn't sound wrong. You can use any of your key's six major and minor chords in combination with any series of notes from the pentatonic scale.

The one exception is that the melody can't sit on the 1 note while playing a [three]m or [five] chord. In C major, you can't stay on the C note in the melody while playing an Em or G chord. The C clashes uncomfortably with the B in those chords. But as long as your melody keeps moving around, you won't run into that problem.

Morrissey, lead singer of The Smiths, and many others in the post-new wave/modern rock world use this trick to craft melodies that show an utter disregard for the accompanying chord line. Perhaps it expresses a personal stubbornness, a defiance of authority and convention. But you can't argue with the musical results, which are often quite powerful.

Give this a try: write a pentatonic melody, and then use some random technique for picking chords from the key's six chords. Then try a different random set of chords. You'll see that the melody fits in with both different chord lines.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Melody tip: Work against the chords

As I noted in the previous post, the simple way to make your melody sound right is to emphasize notes that belong to the current chord.

The sophisticated way to make your melody sound interesting is to do the opposite: to emphasize notes that don't belong to the current chord. If you do this carelessly, you run the risk that the melody will just sound wrong. But there is a simple secret to doing things wrong and getting an artful result: craft the "wrong" element into a consistent, discernible pattern. Then it sounds like a deliberate choice instead of a mistake.

As you listen to other people's songs, and as you sing and play them, pay attention to which melody notes fit into the chords and which notes cut against the chords. Skilled songwriters use both kinds.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Melody tip: Work with the chords

For an absolute beginner in melody writing, here's the #1 insider's secret on how to write melodies that sound musical: Pick a melody note that's in the chord sounding at the same time. Most chords have three notes, so that gives you three melody notes to choose from. Try one of those notes, and see how it works.

When the chord changes, see if your melody note fits the new chord. If not, find a nearby note that does. You never have to move by more than one step to fit into the new chord.

For a little extra interest, you can add a few notes that don't belong to the current chord. (The fancy technical name for these notes is non-chord tones.)
  • You can move from one chord note up or down to another chord note, passing through one or two inbetween notes that don't belong to the chord. (The notes inbetween are called passing tones.)
  • You can start on a chord note, take one step down to the next note, and then back up to the first note. (That lower note, which doesn't belong to the chord, is called a neighbor tone.)
  • You can also go one step up to the next note, and then come back down. (Also a neighbor tone, the upper neighbor.)
  • You can start the measure with an accented note that's not in the chord -- a pointedly dissonant note. But you quickly resolve the dissonance by moving down one step to a note that belongs to the chord. (If you want to get really fancy, you can also move up one step to resolve the dissonance.)
To recap, here's the absolute beginner's way to write a melody:
  1. Pick a series of notes that fit with the chord progression.
  2. Here and there, change a few of the notes to non-chord tones, using any combination you like of the four kinds of non-chord tones listed above.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Melody tip: Cast of characters

One way to approach melody writing is to treat the notes — usually the seven notes of the major or minor scales — as if each were a separate character in a stage play. In this frame of mind, you treat each note's entrance and exit as a significant event.

For example, you might start with a single-note soliloquy, and introduce a few more notes one at a time to join the conversation. Soon one of those notes wanders off to start a new conversation with some other notes.

When a note has worn out its welcome in the spotlight, take that note offstage for a while and let a different character lead the action for a while.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Melody tip: Nudge the rhythm

If your melody seems basically good but sound just a little too predictable and familiar, try nudging the melody a quarter-note earlier or later with respect to the underlying beat. (In a fast tempo, move up or back by a half note.)

This simple, mechanical change can make it sound like a completely different melody. Sometimes, that's all you have to do to get it into the right groove.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Melody tip: The melody line is a rhythm line

If you tap out the rhythm of your melody line on the tabletop, does it sound interesting without the help of the words and the pitches? Would anyone have a chance of recognizing your song just from the rhythm of the melody?

It's okay if the answer is no. There are many good, successful rock songs with nothing interesting or distinctive in their melodic rhythm. But if you want your song to be catchy and memorable, to get listeners' attention and to stick in their memories, then take some time to look for ways to make the melody's rhythm more distinctive and interesting — especially in the song's chorus and in the hook line.

When I set out to write music for a finished set of lyrics, I write the rhythm first. I don't start thinking about notes until I've settled on a tempo and feel and sketched out the melodic rhythm.

Often, at this stage of writing, I make some edits to the lyrics so that the words fit neatly into the rhythm scheme. Sometimes I have to rephrase things to add or remove a few syllables. I make sure that each strongly accented note lines up with a strong word, a word that deserved to be emphasized.

I've learned from experience that if I don't get the right rhythm to start with, I'll end up at a dead end and have to start over anyway. And if I do get the rhythm right, the notes fall into place without any great effort.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Melody tip: Geometric melody lines

The previous post described the natural melody style that imitates the pitch of ordinary speech. The opposite style of melody involves carefully crafted shapes and patterns of notes. I sometimes call this style geometric melody, because on music paper the notes form neat geometric patterns that you can pick out by eye. The patterns are even clearer if you chart the succession of notes on graph paper.

At its best, geometric melody is catchy and engaging. It delights the parts of our brains that solve puzzles and recognize patterns. (Rhyme schemes provide a similar kind of appeal.)

At its worst, geometric melody can seem inane and childish, and it can wear out its welcome after a while. There are a limited set of pleasing patterns that can be formed with the seven scale notes, and all of them have been used before, so you might have to tinker with the notes until you come up with something that sounds fresh and original enough.

Many conventional songs use natural melody for the verses and geometric melody for the catchier choruses.

Take a look at your own songs. If you never use geometric-style melody, you should try your hand it. And if you never use natural, speech-style melody, that is equally worth exploring. If your melodies are always in the vague area between those two styles, then you have double the chance to improve your melodies by practicing both styles.

If your melody style seems too limited, try switching up the method you use to compose your melodies. Stereotypically, natural melody is composed by singing out loud, while geometric melody is composed while sitting at a keyboard.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Melody tip: The natural melody of speech

Melodies are shapes painted by musical notes. A melody line goes up, then down, then up again, and its particular shape helps make it unique and interesting.

Ordinary, everyday speech has its own shapes. Even without musical notes, the pitch of a person's voice moves up and down in the course of an ordinary sentence. Some of these pitch movements are universal expressions, some are characteristic of a specific language or region, some express specific emotions, and some reveal the speaker's unique personality. Use your songwriter ears to listen to the shifting pitches of everyday speech, and you'll find music everywhere you go.

When you have a new song lyric to set to music, try saying the words out loud in as natural a way as you can. Imagine that you're actually talking to someone, using the words of the song, and it's important that they understand what you're trying to say. Notice the pitch of your voice as you say the words. (If it helps, record yourself speaking, and listen to the playback.)

Often you'll hear three pitches in your speaking voice: a central pitch, a higher pitch for emphasized words, and a lower pitch at the end of a phrase or sentence. Try assigning those pitches to three notes, and see if that works as a melody. Adjust the notes as you need to so that they fit your chords. Sometimes that's all you have to do, and the melody falls into place.

Using the natural melody of speech is easy for you as a songwriter, and it also makes it easy for the listener to grasp the meaning of the words. You can't use this technique all the time — some songs demand something different — but go ahead and use it where you can.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Melody tip: Use higher notes for the chorus

In the previous post we talked about the song's melodic range. Each part of the song has its own melodic range, as well, and you can use melodic range to help define your song's structure.

There's a very conventional way to do this. The first part of the verse uses a low and narrow melodic range, often with only two or three notes. The "part B" of the verse moves to a slightly higher register. And the chorus introduces even higher notes, often including the highest notes in the song.

Using a higher melodic range for the chorus, and often also a wider melodic range, is one way to help the listener hear that the chorus the high point of the song.

In some songs, the chorus also has longer notes than the verse. The verse has more syllables to squeeze in, so the notes have to be shorter. The chorus, with fewer lyrics, spreads out with sustained notes or melismas. (A melisma is a single syllable stretched out over several melody notes.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Melody tip: Know your tessituras

A song's melodic range, as measured by its lowest and highest melody notes, must line up with the singer's range. If it doesn't, you'll transpose the song — move it up or down into a different key — so that it fits the singer's ability.

But it's not always enough to look at the lowest and highest notes of a song. It's also important to the core range of a song, a smaller set of notes that occur most frequently in the song and in the most important parts of the song. Musicians call this range the song's tessitura.

A singer has a tessitura as well. That's the set of notes that the singer can handle most strongly without getting vocally tired. The singer's tessitura is a smaller range of notes than the singer's maximum range. Make sure your song's tessitura matches up with the singer's tessitura.

Some singers, especially those with classical vocal training, know their range and can tell you precisely what their strongest range is. Some other singers just don't know and might even make incorrect guesses if you ask them. The way to be sure of a singer's best range is to listen to songs they've sung before and check what notes they're actually singing.

If you sing your own songs, you probably naturally place them in the best range for your voice. But if you have a low- or middle-range voice, you might have gotten in the habit of singing along with your favorite pop stars in ranges that are uncomfortably high for you, and not actually your best singing range. Don't compete with other singers who aren't even on the stage; transpose your songs down a step or two if that's better for your voice.

Some songwriters bristle at changing the melody to accommodate a singer, and some bands balk at re-learning a song in a different key, but it's a good practice to make those changes as a matter of course. Remember: If you want people to like your song, a good vocal performance has a bigger impact than any other single factor. Or, to put it more bluntly, from the audience's point of view: If it's not sung well, it isn't a good song.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Melody tip: Share the spotlight

Typically the important melody line is the main vocal line, but not always. There are many delightful examples where the main vocal melody has very little movement, and an instrumental line (or sometimes a backing vocal line) steps in with an interesting background melody that moves that song forward.

This comes naturally with rap vocals, because rap is inherently an unpitched style of vocals. But you'll find it also in funk and blues-based rock, where the vocal line might stick to two or three notes while a repeating riff holds the melodic spotlight. And you'll come across it in the chorus of many uptempo rock and pop songs, where the main vocal hook is just a staccato exclamation, and it's the instrumental parts that make the chorus catchy.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

October is Melody Month

Of all the elements of music, melody is the one that most people grasp intuitively, without any training needed.

To get from that intuitive knowing to a deeper level of knowledge, many hours of training are required, starting with learning music notation. But all of that training still isn't enough. You must integrate the book-learning with your original intuitive sense of melody before you can say that you've mastered it.

This month, we won't go into that level of depth and detail. But this blog will feature some quick tips about melody writing, simple ideas that might give you a few more options to work with as you craft the melody of your next song.