Melody Rhythm

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by Conrad Albrecht

You learned how to pick melody notes which work with your chords in our article Add a Melody: First Steps. Now let's look at the bigger picture; combining single notes to make a good melody.

To create a melody, you have to decide two things about the notes:

  1. Rhythm - when the notes start and how long they last
  2. Pitch - which notes (high or low) to use

To take one thing at a time, let's start with the rhythm.

The Melody Rhythm in Some Real Songs

If we look at the melody rhythm in real songs, we see a pattern:

Melody notes are grouped into phrases.

Each phrase is a group of several notes which fall pretty close together. The phrases are separated from each other by longer gaps.

Let's create the opening melody phrase in your song's hook section.

To get a feel for the possibilities, look at these "hook melody phrases" from some real songs. (I'm using just one pitch, not the real notes, to show just the rhythms.)

In the examples above, I've marked the beginning of the hook section with the word "Hook". Notice that sometimes (like in #1 and #3 above), the hook melody starts a beat or two before the downbeat of the hook section. When the melody "starts early" like this, it's called a pickup.

Recipe for a Melody Rhythm

Here's a specific recipe you can follow to start creating a hook melody phrase:

Step 1: Start with a chord progression.

The "hook chord progression" you created in Chord Patterns: Home and Away will work fine for this.

You might want to insert a couple of measures of chords on a line above your main hook section, as an "intro". (You could use a 2-measure phrase copied from your hook section for this.) This gives you a place to put the pickup if you decide to use one.

Step 2: Decide where to place the first note.

You can place the first note anywhere from a couple of beats before the downbeat of the chord phrase, to a couple of beats after that downbeat.

You can place the first note either on a beat, or on an off-beat (half-way between two beats). If you have a lyric, it can help you decide this. If the first syllable is accented, it will often go on a beat; if unaccented, on an off-beat. If you don't have a lyric yet, don't worry! You can always modify the melody later to make it fit a lyric.

What pitch to use for this first note? Don't worry about it, just use any chord tone (the "green notes" in ChordSong). We're concentrating on rhythm now; you can change the pitches later.

Step 3: Place more notes to complete the phrase.

Follow these "rules" (derived from the real-song examples above) to complete your melody phrase. Or break them if you want; they're only here to help narrow down the choices when you don't know what you want to do next!

Rule 3.1: Starting with the note you already placed, place one "quarter note" (a quarter note lasts a full beat) or two "eighth notes" (each eighth note lasts just half a beat) in each beat until the phrase is done. If you have a lyric, it can help you decide where to use one or two notes in a beat, because accented syllables often go on a beat, and unaccented syllables often go on an off-beat.

Rule 3.2: Keep using the same pitch you used for the first note. When the chord changes, move up or down to a nearby pitch which works with the new chord.

Rule 3.3: Use about 2 to 8 notes in your phrase. Of course, if you have a lyric, the number of syllables in your lyric can tell you exactly how many notes you need.

And that's it! You've created the rhythm for your song's hook melody phrase.

This article's "mystery example songs" were:
Song #1: Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan)
Song #2: Imagine (John Lennon)
Song #3: Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)
Song #4: Yesterday (The Beatles)

Next: Theory Basics: 12 Chromatic Tones
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