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May, 2013

"Composing Tools For Your Songwriting Toolbox Part 3: Melody"

by Webmaster

"A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians." — Frank Zappa

"Measure For Measure" by David Alzofon's columns in American Songwriter inspired this column. It includes 'Easy' is Just a Four-Letter Word in the March / April 2012 issue, The Truth About Those Three Chords in the May / June 2012 issue, Unchained Melody in the July / August 2012 issue, Sex, Drugs and Dopamine in the September / October 2012 issue and The Sound of Music in the January / February 2013 issue.

Most songwriting books, classes, workshops, etc. concentrate on lyrics. Alzofon's series of articles is the best description of how to write music that I have found. All quotations that are not specifically attributed to someone else come from David Alzofon's columns. Indented portions are paraphrases of Alzofon's words.

"Music is the soul of language." — Max Heindel

In addition to the material in Alzofon's articles, I have included some basic music theory and other tips I've learned from various music and songwriting books, workshops, teachers, and my good friend B. J. Suter.

"...I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was yet certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before; and concluded that he was a composer of highly original genius." — H. P. Lovecraft

I appreciated the advice Alzofon learned from his boss:

    • Stay playful. Jef [Raskin] often said he would never work at a place he could not play.
    • Cultivate your musical imagination. Put your guitar down and listen inward.
    • Learn to juggle one musical element at a time.

He suggests we divide difficult tasks, like writing a song, into small, easy ones.

    1. Break the song down into rhythmic phrases
    2. Add appropriate chords to the phrases
    3. Put a melody to the chords

I have written a series of three columns using these tasks. March's column concentrates on rhythic phrasing. Last month's column concentrates on chords. This month's column concentrates on melody.

"Iris, if you were a melody... [piano melody]. I used only the good notes." — Jack Black's character to Kate Winslet's character in "The Holiday"

I have used the phrase "consider your lyrics" throughout this process. That's because I start with lyrics. Even those few times I've been inspired to write lyrics based on music, I've seen images in the music, written lyrics, then modified the music to fit the lyrics. But other songwriters start with grooves, chord patterns and melodies. The lyrics come last to them, once they've established an emotion created by the music. Other songwriters write the lyrics and music together.

"I'd have this idea of a melody, and the words would start getting attracted to it." — Donovan

No matter how you start, a song isn't a song until it has a melody and lyrics. If you start with lyrics, you can read your lyrics out loud. Listen for where you voice naturally rises and falls. But you need to be aware of the "emotional implications" of the rise and fall of this natural melody.

"I am reminded now ... of a demonstration of the difference between noise and melody which I saw and heard in a freshman physics lecture so long ago... The professor threw a narrow board, which was about the length of a bayonet, at the wall of the room, which was cinder block. 'That's noise,' he said. Then he picked up seven more boards, and he threw them against the wall in rapid succession, as though he were a knife-thrower. The boards in sequence sang the opening notes of 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' I was enchanted. 'That's melody,' he said." — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

It's a good idea to vary the length of the notes in a melody. If every note in your melody was the same lenght, you'd have a melody like a march. Just as the spoken word has syllables, some of which are emphasized, the sung word should have notes that are longer and shorter, keeping the natural rhythm of the word. And, just like the spoken sentence has words that are more important than others which are shorter, the melody should use longer notes for the important words, and shorter notes for the words in between the important words. Read the lyrics outloud again. Not only will your voice naturally rise and fall, it will naturally speed up and slow down, to emphasize and gloss over words.

"But they’re not poems. They’re lyrics. They’re meant to be sung. They come out of the rhythm of the music, as opposed to creating your own rhythm of the words." — Paul Simon

Alzonfon gives us some emotional implications of melodic changes:

  • "rising pitch often implies rising emotions, such as joy, hope, or love ... may also imply distress"
  • "An upward leap signals a sudden burst of emotion. The bigger the leap, the stronger the burst."
  • "After an upward leap, the melody often descends by scale steps, as if releasing energy little by little.... The descending steps may zig-zag like a falling leaf, delaying the anticipated return to home...."
  • "falling melody signal[s] declining energy, senimentality, tenderness, surrender, sadness, or loss. It may also signal mounting resolve."
  • "Arcs combine the characteristics of rising and falling lines." Arcs can rise then fall smoothly, like a rainbow, or they can fall then rise smoothly, like a bucket. Either side of an arc can be "a falling leaf" or the mirror image of that pattern.
  • "Pop composers often center an arc around the middle of a two-measure section (on the first beat of the second measure)."
  • "When composers hit higher notes in the chorus than in the verses, it creates a long-range arc."
  • "Straight lines suggest restless energy or a dreamy drone."

    Alzofon quotes Michaeleen Doucleff (from "Anatomy of a Tearjerker," Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2012) who cited research that shows: "emotionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs. This makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat the behavior. ... The more emotions a song provokes — whether depressing or uplifting — the more we crave the song."

Consider your lyrics when you create your melody. Use the higher notes and notes held longer to emphasize specific words. Try to compose your melody to emphasize the important words in a phrase rather than unimportant words.

"Sometimes a great song is defined as much by what the lyric doesn’t say as what it does. One of the advantages of writing a song as opposed to writing literature, painting a portrait or building a house is the extraordinary context that the music provides for the lyric. Sometimes good melody and chord structure allows a lyricist to say very little, leaving the music to imply the rest of the story. Intriguing plot lines and amazing imagery are impressive, but feel horribly out of place if they crowd the emotional content of the music. The ability to provide just enough information in the lyric is what separates great lyricists from great writers." — David Mead

It is possible to convey your the emotion in a short song. Each word has to count, add to the story, convey the emotion. When the song is that full of content, it becomes important to allow the listener time to process the lyrics. That can be done with pauses in the lyrics, allowing the melody to maintain the emotion.

"Even in the most beautiful music, there are some silences, which are there so we can witness the importance of silence. Silence is more important than ever, as life today is full of noise. We speak a lot about environmental pollution but not enough about noise pollution." — Andrea Bocelli

Recent pop country music seems intent on putting as many syllables as possible into a song that doesn't run longer than two and a half minutes. Instrumental breaks waste too much time so they've been cut out of the song. Airplay is the driving force behind mass-produced songs, and shorter songs will get more airplay. They fit into spaces before time-assigned commercials.

"Lyrics exist in time, second to second to second. Therefore, lyrics always have to be underwritten. You cannot expect an audience to catch more than the ear is able to catch at the tempo and richness of the music." — Stephen Sondheim

In addition, you might consider the form of your song when you compose your melody. Just as an individual line can rise and fall, the structure of a song can rise and fall, with the verse being low, the pre-chorus rising in pitch, and the chorus being the highest notes in the range of a song.

"Use vocal range, chords, melodic rhythm, and use of the downbeat or off-beat to distinguish different parts of a song.  If one of those doesn't change, the others become more important." — Steve Seskin

"Certain musical devices, such as an appoggiatura (an accented note that clashes with a chord and then resolves into it) are known to provoke strong emotions." "...it always seemed to me that the truth and an appoggiatura will unleash a lot more dopamine than an appoggiatura and a calculated attempt to grab my attention." Alzofon states that the techniques he recommends are the shell of the song. He adds, "The truth is the kernel, the beating heart of a song. Without it, there is no life. You can have a hit , maybe, but not a bull’s-eye ... A song rings true when words and melody intertwine to create a whole that far exceeds the sum of its parts."

"The secret of a great melody is a secret." — Dave Brubeck

How to get that melody is a mystery. Dramatic leaps in melody are part of it. "Intervals – how high you jump – have a significant influence on that."

"For music to speak to me, it has to have two qualities: a strong, catchy melody and a wicked groove." —Kailin Yong

Like chords, melody leaps can be major or minor. The interval only varies by a half-step, but the impact is "as different as sunlight and moonbeams." The 12 notes in an octave each have "emotional tone colors." "You must sing the intervals – it is easier to feel their emotional color that way." Alzofon suggests listening to songs with different intervals, singing along with them and then creating your own lyrics to match the mood of the interval. "Intervals may be fleeting, but they matter! Responses to them, such as “happy” or “sad,” are universal .... Somehow our brains compute their emotional implications instantaneously. This is part of what makes music the universal language."

"You don't write a song to sit there on a page. You write it to sing it." — Bob Dylan

The notes themselves can be either restful or restless. The notes comprising the tonic chord (the first, third and fifth notes of the scale) are restful. The root note of the chord is the most restful. The second note of the chord (the third note in the scale) is "sensitive, tender, emotional, affectionate, adoring, sensual." It also differentiates the chord from a major (happy) chord to a minor (sad) chord. The third note in the chord(the fifth note in the scale) is "bold, spirited, hopeful, or ecstatic."

The other notes are restless. The second note in the scale is "suspenseful, floating, ... wistful, vague, misty, airy." The fourth note in the scale is "yielding, devoted, affectionate, submissive, faithful." The sixth note in the scale is "joyous, ecxgagic, colorful, tropical, sensual." The seventh note in the scale is "yearning, unfulfilled, lustful, ecstatic on the verge of release."

"Let your hooky chorus notes be heard the first time in the chorus." — Steve Seskin

Steve Seskin also recommends that your hooky notes be the highest notes in the song. The higher notes add excitement and grab the listeners' attention.

"I knew a lot of chords, but they weren't the chords that came with the melody that came with the idea I had for the song. Melodies are simple things. If you see a train wreck, there's a melody. If you see a little daisy blowing in the breeze, there's a melody." — Tom T. Hall

You might have a melody in your head that needs a note that is not in the chord you started with, but the chord seems to fit the pattern. Or you might have a melody that occurs in a chord but you need to change the chord progression to provide some variety. You may need to do some chord substitutions, at this point. Any note in the scale can be found in a number of chords, not just the three primary chords. Color chords can contain second, sixth and seventh notes. Major chords can be changed to minor and minor chords can be changed to major. Chords with a root of the flatted seventh note in the scale can add a different emotion. In jazz, swing and blues tunes, any chord can be flatted, some more effectively than others.

"I learned from listening to James Taylor that you don’t want your melody to be the root of the chord. You want the melody to be an interesting note in the chord." — David Wilcox

Alzofon writes that you can begin and end a melody on any note of the scale. He adds that the melody might be a 2-measure phrase, a verse, a chorus, a bridge or even the song.

While it is true that you can end your song with any chord or any note, you might want to consider your listeners' response. Ending the song on a chord other than the tonic and on a note other than the root might upset some listeners. It's usually a sign that the story in the song (either explicit or implicit) isn't done yet. It leaves the listener wanting more, rather than feeling complete.

"Melodies can be good depending on the context. You can have a simple melody, and if the harmony behind it is interesting, it can make a very simple melody really different. You can also have a complex melody. The more complex it is, the harder it is to sing, and then sometimes it can sound contrived. You could write a melody that would be fine on a saxophone but if you give it to a singer, it can sound raunchy." — Donald Fagen

Not only do musical notes have a tone, a position in the scale, they have a duration. Musical phrases have a certain number of beats in each measure. The length of the notes takes into account the number of beats in a measure. The most common time signature for popular music is 4/4. That means four beats in a measure and a quarter note is one beat. A half note is 2 beats. A whole note is four beats. Each beat can be divided into eighth notes, which can then be divided into sixteenth notes. Depending on the tempo, eighth and sixteenth notes can be very difficult to sing.

"Musical notes — a half note, a quarter note — help a child begin to learn fractions. ... We must provide a complete education that includes the arts if we want to graduate students with the creativity and innovation they'll need to soar." — Dwight Jones and Elaine Mariner

Once you think you've gotten it, start singing and playing your song. Sing-ability is important. Can you sing it? Can other people sing it? Play-ability is important. Can you play the chords you've chosen, at the tempo you've chosen, when people are watching and listening? Can other people play it? Are you writing for a specific person? Can and would that person play and sing what you've written? Play it for people? Do they respond to the emotion of the song? And, finally, does it sound right to you? You might find that what you've come up with from the left side of your brain, following the procedures and using the tools in these three columns, isn't the song you hear in your head. You may need to go back and change the melody or the chords or the tempo or the rhythm or the lyrics.

"A song is such a short form ... that the slightest flaw seems like a mountain. And so every song needs to be revised 'til it's close to perfection... But achieving perfection takes a lot of energy." — Stephen Sondheim

Not every song will use every "tool" that you learn from various songwriting books, classes, and articles. But it's great to have a full tool box and know what to use, when to use it, and why.

"It's just the more you do it the better you get, or at least that's how I feel in my case. I think it's a combination of confidence and just having done it this long and just learning. I'm always learning. I'm still honing my craft." — Lucinda Williams

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