What Are The Principles Of Great Melody Writing?
Do you ever hear a melody and marvel at how it flows along with so much momentum, connecting chords so smoothly? If you have heard a melody like that, the reason it sounds that way is because of some fundamental principles acting behind the music. You can hear these principles working in your favourite classical pieces, classic rock guitar solos, or jazz trumpet improvisations.
Some people talk about “Voice Leading”. It is a musical term that means a melody moves smoothly from one chord to the next, hitting chord tones on the strong beats as it goes along. Chord tones are strong notes within the chord, for example the Root, 3rd 5th or 7th. “Voice” means any melody instrument or a singer (literally a voice!).
All good melodies use voice leading. Bach was a master of it, as was Charlie Parker. When you hear a melody that utilizes great voice leading, you can HEAR the chord changes behind the melody, even if there is no instrument actually playing the chords.
For an example, let’s take a look at the first 4 bars of the well known jazz standard Fly Me To The Moon (by Bart Howard). The rhythm of the melody has been simplified to make it easier to see what is going on in the melody.
Now we’re going to analyse the notes of the melody to see whether they are:
- chord tones: Roots, 3rds, 5ths, or 7ths
- non-chord tones: 2nds/9ths, 4ths/11ths, or 6ths/13ths
- passing notes: any other note in between the chord and non-chord tones
We will also look at whether they fall on strong or weak beats. Strong beats are beats 1 and 3, weak beats are 2 and 4, and
Let’s analyse the first bar:
Beat 1: C on an Am7 chord = the 3rd
Beat 2: B on an Am7 chord = the 2nd or 9th
Beat 3: A on an Am7 chord = the Root
Beat 4: G on an Am7 chord = the 7th
Green circled notes = chord tones
Red circled notes = non-chord tones
So, three out of the four notes in that bar are chord tones. The one non-chord tone B happens on a weak beat, Beat 2.
What about bar 2?
Beat 1: F on a Dm7 chord = the 3rd
Beat 2: G on a Dm7 chord = the 4th or 11th
Beat 3: A on a Dm7 chord = the 5th
Beat 4: C on a Dm7 chord = the 7th
This means bar 2 is the same as bar one, with 3 chord tones and a non-chord tone on beat 2.
Now bar 3:
Beat 1: B on a G7 chord = the 3rd
Beat 2: A on a G7 chord = the 2nd or 9th
Beat 3: G on a G7 chord = the Root
Beat 4: F on a G7 chord = the 7th
The 3rd bar is identical to the 1st bar, with the same pattern of chord and non-chord tones happening on the same beats.
The 4th bar has only one long E note, which is a 3rd on the C major 7 chord.
This gives the melody a very lyrical sound with lots of momentum to it. ALL of the strong beats contain only chord tones. The weak beats contain either chord tones or non-chord tones. There are no passing notes. These are some of the most important principles of great melody writing:
- Put chord tones on strong beats
- Put chord tones, non-chord tones or passing notes on weak beats.
If we look at the melody with the rhythm as it would be sung by a singer such as Frank Sinatra, you can see that some notes have been displaced from strong beats such as the 1, to weak beats such as the “and” of 4. (1, 2, 3, 4 +):
Some notes are anticipated, such as the F on the and-of-4 in bar 1. This note would be a dissonant non-chord tone over the Am7 chord but a strong chord tone over the Dm7. Even if it is heard over the Am7 chord, it is only for a split second, so the ear associates it more with the Dm7 chord.
When Should You Use These Principles In Your Guitar Playing?
In one of these 3 situations:
- When you are improvising over chord changes
- When you are composing a solo over chord changes
- When you are composing any melody or writing a song
Why Should You Use These Principles?
You should try to understand how great melodies work if you want to do any of the above 3 activities. And frankly, if you are a musician or even a beginner music student, you should try to do all 3 of these on a regular basis. For complete beginners, soloing over chord changes will most likely be too hard, but you can solo over one chord – or a backing track with just two chords. It’s a lot of fun to do!
Practicing with these principles in mind will make you not only a better guitarist, but also a better musician and composer. Unless you ONLY want to ever play covers, remember: Improvising is composing in real-time, and composing is improvising in non-real time. The principles for each are identical! Have fun, and keep progressing with your playing 😀
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