Musical inspiration can strike at any time: driving home from work, in the shower, or even when you wake up in the morning. You could hum a melody one day, and find it sticks around for days, weeks, or longer. Focus your inspiration while exploring the possibilities and you’ll soon be molding melodies of your own!
Scott Harding, composer and faculty member at the School of Music, Central Michigan University, says it’s important to act upon musical inspiration. “Sometimes a melody just comes to you,” he says. “I’ll occasionally find myself humming a tune, and it’ll be stuck in my head for several days or even weeks. I eventually find that it’s nothing I actually know, so I’ll write it down.”
Composing music is not always easy, and sometimes inspiration takes a day off. If you want to write a melody and inspiration doesn’t strike, it’s more difficult. Harding suggests figuring out what kind of tune you want to play. What key will you play it in? Do you want an upbeat major chord progression, a lazy swing of sevenths, or a moody minor melody? The melody you create will largely be based upon the chord progression you choose. Or you can write a melody first, then figure out the appropriate chords to go along with it.
While music theory courses will provide a strong foundation for creating melodies, there are some basic ideas to guide you.
Start Simple, Then Embellish
Many composers start with a simple melody line, and over the course of a song’s development, embellish upon the original few notes. A simple rhythm is important in the first stages. Try using quarter notes in the beginning, then create more emotion in the melody through whole notes, eighth notes, and pauses.
Many melodies follow a contour system. If you were to draw a line through the notes in your melody, it would create some gradual arches. In this technique, it’s common to have one set of peak notes, the highest and lowest notes in the melody. Look below at the example, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in the key of G.
This melody creates gentle slopes, peaking with D in the middle and ending with G. You should also notice that the melody ends on the root note of the key, and the highest note is the fifth of G, a D.
Music is very mathematical. Many people who compose music think in terms of numbers. There are seven notes and chords in a basic major scale. Using “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as an example, you’ll learn quickly how the number system works. The song is in the key of G, the root is a I. (Capital Roman numerals are major chords; minor chords are indicated with lower case Roman numerals.)
The key of G looks like this: I-G, ii-A minor, iii-B minor, IV-C, V-D, vi-E minor, vii-F# diminished, and back to the root. These are triads, or three-note chords—the major chord is made up of the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale, while minor chords are the first, flat third, and fifth notes of the scale. When starting, it’s best not to try to use diminished chords.
Melodies Over Chords
In “Mary Had a Little Lamb” you’ll notice the first note is a B. Since we know the song is in the key of G, how does B fit into that key? Based on the chords in G major, we know B is the third note in the G major scale and the third of a G major chord. The next note is an A, or the second note in a G major scale. Following the A, the next note resolves the melody and chord with the root of G.
Think Out of the Box
While some basic rules govern melody and music theory, many composers suggest playing what sounds good to you. Cindi Hsu, a composer and faculty member at the Music Conservatory of Westchester in New York State, advises aspiring songwriters to keep a notebook around because you never know when inspiration will strike. She also suggests playing around with a melody, improvising and developing it over time. “Do whatever you feel comfortable with,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of writing down anything you have.”