We’ve all heard songwriters, composers and musicians talk about melody as one of the building blocks of a piece of music, but what is melody? And what is counter melody in music? Things get a little more complex when you start thinking about the other building blocks available so in this blog we’ll also look at what is melody and harmony in music, what does melody mean in music terms and how you can effectively use melody in your songwriting and composing.
What Is The Definition Of Melody In Music?
If we look at the melody music definition – melody is “a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying; a tune: he picked out an intricate melody on his guitar.” This is a pretty good summary of melody but it’s one thing to define melody in music and another to actually work with it. To really understand how to use melody, it’s helpful to understand the other building blocks available to you.
The Building Blocks of Music
As songwriters and composers we have a number of tools at our disposal in order to create a piece of music or a song. In the most basic form we have Rhythm, Harmony (typically the chord sequence) and Melody – the sequence of notes on top of it all that comprise the tune. In a nutshell, the melody is the bit you’d whistle back to your friends when you talk about how much you love a song or composition.
Young songwriters often start their writing process working with chords. Stringing together chords and seeing what melodies jump out of those chords and this is absolutely a good way to start. But, that said, Acoustic Guitar icon, Tommy Emmanuel has explained that his process, whether composing or arranging, is to start with the melody. The reason for this approach is that by starting with the melody you have a string of notes that comprise your tune and you can create more interesting harmony (i.e. chords) that go with that melody.
As an example, Emmanuel talks about his arrangement of Moon River with the beautiful falling melody that accompanies the words “wider than a mile”. By taking those melody notes as the guiding principle, he was able to use alternative major 7 th chords to fall in line with the melody and create something really interesting – a trick that’s often employed by the likes of Ray Charles, Chet Akins and George Benson.
So as a songwriter, you can vary your harmony (your chords) to be sonically interesting whilst also maintaining your melody. As an easy way to get started with this technique – try substituting some of the major chords in your chord progression for the relative minors. So substitute a C Major for an a Minor, or a G Major for an E minor and sing your melody over top. As you develop the technique more you can get really interesting by playing in chords outside of the key you’re in – for example if you’re in the key of C Major and your melody hits an E – try swapping in a E7 chord. It’s a trick The Beatles often use as a way of keeping the listener engaged and keeping the song interesting for the listener.
Melody and Key
Generally speaking, your melody is made up of the notes from your key. For example – if you are in the key of C Major, your tonal melody is made up of all of the white notes on the keyboard (A, B, C, D, E, F and G – or Doh, Ray, Me, Far, So, La, Ti, Doh for all you Sound of Music fans).
In many cases, you might decide to slightly alter some of the notes in your melody so that they fall outside of the notes in the Key. For example, a common tool used in melody is to utilise a flat 7 th – which in the key of C major would be a Bb. Notes in a melody used outside of a key are called accidentals. Sometimes these accidentals are just odd notes that just sound right, and other times the composer might be using an alternative scale – for example in Kiss From a Rose, Seal utilises what’s called a Dorian mode in G, giving the song it’s unique melancholy feel.
As always, let your ears be your guide – if you feel the melody works and is more interesting by changing some of notes, then do it! In music the rules are a guide and some of the most engaging and interesting music ever written has thrown the rule book out the window.
Tips For Creating a Melody
When we talk about melody – we’re not just talking about vocal melodies. We’re also talking about riffs, solos and instrumental breaks. In addition to the above, there are also a number of little hacks you can employ to make your melodies more engaging and interesting.
Anchoring off the tonic
As many guitarists will know, when playing a solo, it is very easy and tempting to anchor off the tonic, or home note. So if you are in E minor, you can start and end your solo on an E. Although this method is a very safe way of playing, it is also quite bland and very common – the best guitarists will choose to find alternative notes to anchor their solos on. So if you are in E minor you might choose to end on a B or a G or even one of the more clashing intervals – this makes your playing sound much more accomplished and your melody far more interesting to the listener.
Use of rhythm
Just as important as the notes of your melody is the rhythm. Using rhythmic techniques to emphasise the notes of your melody can allow you to create more tension in your melody and again makes it more interesting to the listener.
Everything Everything and Alt J are masters of this, deliberately puling and pushing the rhythm of their melodies away from the predictable to keep it fresh and exciting. You can even stretch out the notes of your melody to create an alternative section – think about the middle of Danny Elfman’s theme for The Simpsons where the notes of the melody are elongated to release the tension and allow space, making the return of the original theme far more exciting as Homer, Marge and co finally land on the sofa in the opening credits.
Counter melody is a really interesting device that can totally lift a song or piece of music. What is a counter melody in music? In brief, a counter melody is a second, alternative melody played at the same time as the main melody. It provides harmonic support to the main melody but could also stand on its own as a melody if the main melody were removed.
In more compositional genres, counter-melody is often used to deepen an established idea and in popular music, a counter melody can be a great tool for adding energy towards the end of a song. A brilliant example of this is Invisible Touch by Genesis, where a vocal counter-melody is deployed during the final chorus to give the song an additional lift.
That Was Our Guide To Melody
Hopefully now you have a clearer picture of what is the melody of music, and most likely you’ve already been using a lot of the techniques and devices described here without necessarily knowing the technical terms for what you’ve been working on. At the end of the day, creating music is all about how it makes you feel and the best way to judge if you have a strong melody is to see if it speaks to you emotionally and creatively.
When interviewed by Rick Rubin, Paul McCartney (who has come up with some of the most culturally significant melodies of all time) said that he and John Lennon were forced into writing strong, catchy melodies and lyrics because they had no way of recording their ideas – they could only play what they could remember and so they naturally created strong and memorable melodies that stuck in their heads. Take the same approach and go have fun with it!
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