Building A Tune From The Ground Up

Part 2: The Melody

In my last blog post I recounted the process of putting a chord progression together for a piece of music I’d been commissioned to write for a wedding. If you missed that post, you can click HERE to see what I did. Now it’s time to look at how the melody was knocked into shape. Before we go any further, let’s get one important thing out of the way… In the past I have caught a lot of flack for my music theory based approach to composition. There are those who say music should be based on emotion & feeling, and that the rule book has no place in the writing process. However I do not see any conflict between an understanding of the architecture of music, and being able to organise it’s elements – rhythm, harmony & melody – into an expression of emotion. Quite the contrary, I would say that the more knowledge you have; the greater your understanding of the mechanics of music, the easier you will find it to articulate whatever it is you seek to express. You will know exactly which combination of notes, rhythm & harmony to use to achieve your desired result & you’ll be able to do it instantly without waiting for the universe to deliver the necessary inspiration. Music is an art and those who create it are artisans whose craft is one that can be quantified. The idea that creativity is hampered by knowledge is a fallacy. So there!

Anyway, the very first thing I do when writing a melody is to put the guitar down. Whatever instrument you are most at home on, I’d recommend you stay away from it when it comes to composing any kind of melody or riff. There are simply too many familiar shapes and patterns that your fingers will naturally fall into which will make it tricky to come up with anything new and original. I always compose a new melody using the piano roll view in my DAW software: a grid with the bar lines & individual beats along the horizontal axis and the ascending notes of the chromatic scale on the vertical axis. Click the mouse on a C# note (for example) and it appears as a coloured square on the grid. Then just drag & drop it to wherever you want it to be in relation to the beats of the bar and, stretch it to the required duration. Doing this for each note means I can write something without having to pick up the guitar and potentially just rattle off all my favourite licks as I search for that elusive new melody.

So… on to the nuts & bolts of writing a melody. What’s the most important component? The notes? Well, they ARE very important, but there’s something even more vital to get right: the phrasing. Even the most well chosen notes won’t guarantee you’ll end up with a memorable tune if you don’t get the phrasing correct. So what exactly does “phrasing” mean? Well, the phrasing is the rhythm that the notes are played in: it is the “shape” of the melody, if you like. Getting this element right will ensure that your finished tune has a well defined hook and will draw the listener in. Here’s how I usually start out…

The first thing I’d recommend is to avoid beginning on the 1st beat of the bar. If you come in at the start of bar 1, it is likely to sound a little pedestrian. The best thing, I find, is to begin the first phrase of a melody towards the end of the count-in bar, preferably on the off-beat. If you’re playing in 3/4 time (as I was for this piece) the count-in will be “1 & 2 & 3 &”. I chose to place my first note on the “and” of beat two and go from there. Each subsequent phrase in the verse melody then also begins on the “and” of one of the beats, as you can see from the phrasing map below. Each highlighted part of the count represents a note in the melody & you can see the phrases plotted in relation to the overall “pulse” of the music.

A Waltz In Purple (verse phrasing map)

Additionally, notice that all but two of the phrases end on an “and” too. This practice of beginning & ending each little melodic segment on the off-beat is a well used, tried & tested method put to good use by artists & composers as diverse as The Foo Fighters, Charles Mingus, Beethoven and Chuck Berry. It may be a formula, but using it doesn’t mean you’ll sound formulaic.

The two phrases which DON’T end on the off-beat (phrases 3 & 6), conclude on the “one” of the 4th & 8th bars. Again we come across another tried & tested compositional trick: the 4 bar cycle. The vast majority of songs, in a wide range of genres, that I have put under the microscope in over two decades of teaching music for a living, have all been based around four bar stanzas. Placing some phrasing variation at the end of every 4 bar segment of the tune (in this case by finishing on the down-beat, rather than the off-beat) is a great way of punctuating the melody in the appropriate places. It’s a bit like a comma separating two lines of lyrics in a couplet. Once the “shape” of the melody has been sculpted you can take all sorts of liberties with the actual note choices from verse to verse, and it will still sound like the same basic melody, albeit with some variations. This would prove to be useful when I got to the final verse in the piece, which you’ll know from the previous post, has an entirely different chord sequence, necessitating radically different note choices. It is the phrasing which provides the continuity, keeping the verses all sounding basically like verses, when doing this sort of thing.

Right, that’s the phrasing for the verse sorted out, so how about some notes then… Well, this is the easy part. Simply look at the note content of each chord in the progression, and make sure that the most prominent notes in the melody – the ones which last the longest & those that conclude each phrase, are notes found in the underlying chord at any given time. Then, it’s little more than a game of “join-the-dots” – just link these “target” notes together, using the phrasing “shape” discussed earlier, with notes taken from the appropriate scale. Here is the verse chord sequence, showing the notes each chord contains as well as which I targeted as the prominent one for the chord in question:

G (G+B+D) target = G

D (D+F#+A) target = F#

Em (E+G+B) target = G

C (C+E+G) target = E

G (G+B+D) target = B

Bm (B+D+F#) target = D

F (F+A+C) target = A

D (D+F#+A) target = D

These notes, and those connecting them together were arrived at, as I said earlier, by dragging & dropping mouse-click generated notes in my DAW. The melody didn’t arrive fully formed in my head, by any means, I crafted it. There was much experimentation with different target notes for each chord; different routes from note to note – ascending vs. descending; whether to play the target note in the same octave as the previous one, or to go to a higher or lower register etc. etc. Eventually, I ended up with this melody. Click HERE to listen & refer to the notation to see it.


So that’s the verse sorted, then. How about the chorus? Well, it’s essentially the same process: Come up with a different phrasing map – something which contrasts with what was used in the verse. Then populate that outline with notes: prominent notes should be those taken from the underlying chord, and the “connective tissue” is simply made up from notes taken from the appropriate scale in relation to the whole chord sequence. If you’re not sure which scale is the correct one for the progression you’re composing over, then simply find the chord which provides the whole thing it’s sense of finality & resolution – the chord which makes the sequence sound “at rest” or “finished”. Then find the pentatonic scale which matches this chord, and you now have a scale which will work. For example, the tonality of the chorus I’m writing here is G major, so most of my notes used to link the “target” notes (the prominent notes in the melody, chosen for their presence in the chord which underpins that moment in the tune) come from the G major pentatonic scale. If you need any help with pentatonic scales & how to identify & locate them, click HERE for a free one hour instructional video.

Anyway, here’s the phrasing map I used for the chorus:

A Waltz In Purple (chorus phrasing map)

And here is the melody I crafted based on that basic rhythmic shape. Click HERE to listen & refer to the notation below:


Notice that although the phrasing is somewhat different to the verse, it still has many of the same attributes: Beginning on the off-beat; most phrases ending on the off-beat; a phrasing variation in the 4th & 8th bars.

So, there you have it – a verse and a chorus melody written for the tune. What I then had to do was transpose what I’d written into the different keys required for each part of the piece, and come up with ways of presenting the melody each time I played it – where to use hammer-ons, slides, string bends etc & improvising around the melody in places, just to add some more variety. Then it was a case of learning the whole thing from beginning to end & improvising a solo for the middle section. It is at this final stage, once I’m totally comfortable with everything that I can let the theory go, and think about the emotional aspect of the performance. Like a poet giving a recital of their work, they have to memorise the lines before they can begin to think about delivering them in a convincing way. You need to understand grammar & spelling to write, but it doesn’t mean that it’s uppermost in your mind during the performance. In music we have the equivalent of linguistic grammar & spelling – it’s called music theory, and understanding it will only serve to help you write and perform to a higher standard.

In case you didn’t catch the last entry in this blog, here’s the finished tune, featuring the melodies we’ve been discussing.

Until next time, have fun!

John Robson

John Robson Guitar Tuition

The John Robson Jazz Project


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