Create an effective melody
How to build a melody from a chord progression
In a previous article, I wrote about how to quickly build a chord progression. In this one, we are going to look at how to build an effective melody. This is beginner friendly but if you want to dig deeper into cinematic composing, check out Arn Andersson’s course at Evenant. Mike Verta’s composition masterclass is also a great resource.
What is an effective melody?
When I use the word effective for a melody, I mean a melody that is easy to remember. Because as composers, that’s what we want, right? People to remember what we wrote. You know these tunes that you just can’t get out of your head? That’s what we should be aiming for.
As humans, we are really good at figuring out patterns. That’s how our brain works. We also like things that we can predict. For example, have you ever wondered why small children always want to see the same movie over and over again? That’s because they know what will happen next. As we grow up, we want to discover new things and be told new stories, of course, but we still have this part of our brain that craves knowing what’s coming next.
To create our melody from a chord progression, we will use these two concepts: patterns and predictability.
Let’s start with a few chords
To set the stage, we will start with a basic chord progression (and again, if you can’t come up with one quickly, check out my previous article). Let’s go with Am / F / C / G. I’ve used some inversions and doubled the root note of the triads in the bass:
Let’s also hear how it sounds so we know what we are working with:
Speaking about predictability, try to pause the audio after the first two chords? Can you “hear” the third one? And if you pause after three chords, can your brain infer the last one? That is because it is a standard chord progression that you’ve heard a billion times already. You know it, even if it’s not conscious. Your brain can predict what’s coming next.
Let’s lay the foundation
This first step is really simple. We will just find the range for our melody. We could write it in the bass but our brain tends to focus better on the highest pitched sounds in a tune so we will write our melody above our chord progression. And because we want to keep the predictability we’ve just set with our chord progression, we will simply duplicate the root note of each chord one octave above:
Here’s how it sounds:
It’s a bit early to call it a day. In the past, I’ve also written about how we can approach composition as a sculptor carving a slab of stone. Although this is the most simple melody, it’s just a slab and we can do much better so let’s move on to the next step.
The first pattern: rhythm
We are good at identifying patterns and remembering them. So how do we “patternize” our melody? By using the first trick in melody writing: rhythm. We have to come up with a catchy but simple rhythm that people will be able to remember after hearing it only once. What I usually do is to take a percussive instrument such as a snare drum and write a rhythmic pattern on one bar. Here is a possible pattern:
Only one bar of snare drum. You can then take this pattern and apply it to the melody line we’ve just added on top of the chord progression. It will look like this:
Listen to the following audio example. First, the chord progression with the snare drum pattern and then, the progression with the pattern on piano:
We now have the rhythmic pattern for our melody. Let’s look at the pitches.
Extracting pitches and building the second pattern
Although we now have a rhythm, we are only using the root note of each chord for our melody. Let’s change that by moving some notes in the first bar only. Which notes can we use? Well, they are right there under your eyes: the same that are used in the chord! Here, I’ve chosen to use twice the root, then twice the third, once the fifth and back to twice the root. Experiment with that until you get something that you like. Here’s what mine looks like:
And because we want to create a pattern, we are going to repeat the same sequence on the remaining 3 bars:
This is how it sounds so far:
We are well on our way to have an effective melody. But we can still do better. Let’s continue.
Spicing it up
Right now, our melody works but it is somewhat boring. We could spice it up by adding some passing notes in the melody. To do that, I took each 4th note in each bar and moved it up to the next note in the scale:
We can also break the predictability a little bit by inverting two notes in the third bar. And while we are at it, let’s move the passing note a little bit higher too. It’s not much but it will add some interest to our melody. We will also conclude the last note in the melody by gluing the last two together:
This is the result:
Using our melody in context
You now have a melody and the harmony to go with it. The way you choose to orchestrate this is totally up to you. Give the melody to a guitar and split the harmony between piano and bass? Have the melody played by a piccolo flute?Do whatever you want with it!
Here, I’ve repeated these four bars twice. Using a mix of strings, brass, woodwinds, a choir, percussion and a little bit of sound design elements. I kept the melody exactly how we wrote it in this article and used the same block chords without adding any movement to them:
This is what it sounds like with this orchestration:
This article just shown how to get started quickly but there’s a lot more you can do. For example, instead of establishing the rhythmic pattern of the melody in the first bar only, why not write a rhythmic pattern spanning two bars? You get the idea…