Recently I’ve come to the realization that the typical melody has four simple traits that we can easily look at and figure out --- whether we’re learning a new tune or coming up with our own new composition.

  1. It can follow the scale.  Perhaps the most famous pieces that use scale motion almost exclusively are Handel/Mason’s ‘Joy to the World’ and Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ --- look how they move around almost totally on the scale!
  2. It can follow the chords.  Lots of pieces do this, and the opening movement of Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ is a classic example.
  3. It can make big jumps.  A charming and challenging feature in many good melodies is a leap, at least an interval of a fourth, and often much more.  I discussed this in my blog post about Beatles ballads.
  4. It uses various kinds of repetition.  A series of notes of any length may be exactly repeated, or it may repeat starting on a different scale step, or… there are all sorts of creative possibilities for this!  But repeating in one way or another is a very important part of most music.

Folk tunes are wonderful examples of how these four things mix and match to create a new organism.  Every song is a different combination of these elements --- check them out!

When I start a new tune myself I often informally analyze the way these four characteristics figure into it --- whether it’s a tune I’m learning or one I’m composing.  I take a pencil sometimes and mark how the various sets of notes repeat or are similar, and it’s amazing how the structure comes into form!  I encourage you as a musician to try whatever works with your own goals.

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