How to compose a melody

A countermelody gives the listener two melodies at once, and considerably boosts melodic interest. Here’s how to write one.

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A countermelody is a second melody that is sung or played at the same time as the main one. It’s not a very commonly-used compositional device, but can be an extremely effective way of boosting song energy. A great example of countermelody in the pop song genre is Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, as well as during the ending chorus of Genesis’ No. 1 hit “Invisible Touch”, from their 1986 album of the same name. A countermelody will provide harmonic support for the main melody, but it differs from a simple harmony line by virtue of the fact that it can and should be able to stand on its own as a viable melody.

Normal vocal harmonies usually lack the distinctive characteristic of melodic line. When you write a countermelody, however, you’re giving the audience two melodies at the same time. Having said that, it’s normal for the countermelody to sound somewhat “subordinate” and background to the main melody.

Simon & Garfunkel’s use of countermelody in “Scarborough Fair/ Canticle” has the countermelody appearing relatively early in the song. But in pop songs, it’s more likely that the countermelody will be used toward the end of the song, as a way of increasing song energy. The ending of Radiohead’s “No Surprises” from “OK Computer” uses the countermelody technique of composition.

A countermelody can be created once song is finished, if you’re looking to add melodic interest and song energy. Let’s say you want to add a countermelody to the repeat of your final choruses. Here’s a step-by-step procedure to follow:

  1. Write out chorus chord progression.
  2. Write a new melody that both works with the chord progression and the original chorus melody.
  3. Adjust the countermelody’s rhythm to complement the rhythm of the main melody. This step is crucial to making a countermelody work well. Here’s the basic rule: where the chorus melody is rhythmically active, allow the countermelody to be less active (i.e., use longer note durations). Where the chorus melody is rhythmically slower, allow the countermelody to become more active (i.e., use shorter, quicker note durations). That way, one melody stays out of the way of the other. If the chorus melody holds a long note, this is especially a spot where you want the countermelody to step forward a bit with a more active moment.
  4. Record the main chorus melody and chords, then play it back while singing the countermelody. This is where you keep adjusting the countermelody to work with the chorus. As the countermelody keeps improving, try singing the countermelody by itself; remember, it needs to sound like a viable melody on its own, even if its main job is to act as background to the main melody.
  5. Create lyrics for the countermelody that partner well with the main chorus melody’s lyrics. You want to create lyrics for your countermelody that keep referring to thoughts and imagery you used in the main lyric. That way, the countermelody’s link to the main chorus melody is further enhanced.

It’s possible to create more than one countermelody so that you have three, or even more, melodies happening simultaneously. The finale of Act 1 of the musical Les Miserables (“One Day More”) is a great example of this.

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by admin | Sep 13, 2018

In our last lesson we spent some time thinking about the kind of waltz we want to compose and putting together a short plan. Now we’re going to get practical and start composing! Some people like to begin a composition with the chords first – if that’s what you’d prefer to do, that’s fine – please do that. I’m going to start with the melody and then create the chords.

I’m going to take you through how to write a melody, but if you want to go into more depth or would like a refresher, why not enrol in our course: How to compose a great melody, where I take you step-by-step through melody-writing. You’ll find a number of examples in this lesson – please listen to them and use them to generate ideas for your own melody.

Getting the melody right

We’re going to go through melody-writing in a bit of detail, as it’s worth getting this bit right – the rest of your composition will flow more easily if you start with a good tune.

How to compose a melody

Creating your melody

We’re going to start by composing a 4-bar melodic phrase. In the next lesson we’ll develop this tune.

What is a phrase?

It’s helpful to think of a phrase as a musical sentence. Where does the music naturally take a breath? Most musical phrases are 2 or 4 bars, but some can be 3 or 6 bars. It depends on the piece.

What to think about first…
  • Think about the mood and character you want to create.
  • Establish your chosen key (write out key signature if you like)
  • Set a couple of intentions. This is where you give some purpose to your melody and decide what kind of character or feeling you want to present.

Here’s what I did:

You want to know how to write a counter melody in your music? Let’s first define what a counter melody is. Let’s skip the boring music theory, and I’ll explain it in a more fun and practical way. Because you just want to compose great music, right? =)

1. Supportive Actor

How to compose a melodyHow do you write a counter melody in your music? Here is how I look at it. Melody is like the leading actor in a scene of a movie. While the counter melody is like a supportive actor, which role is to add contrast and dynamics to the scene.

Basically the counter melody (supportive actor) is there to enrich the scene, and make the performance of the leading actor even more amazing, meaning the melody.

So “the role of the counter melody is to support“, not compete. This is the main point you must learn. How can you play a counter melody in a way that supports the melody, instead of interfering with its performance?

2. Call and Response

Basically this means, that the counter melody only plays when the melody is not. Melody says one thing, the counter melody answers with another thing.

Add a counter melody in the pauses between the notes of the melody. It does not have to be a real pause though, it can be enough to add a couple of counter melody notes, when the leading melody is on a long sustained note.

3. Counter Melody vs Harmony

Another guideline I often use for the instrument playing the counter melody…is to switch back and forth between playing a counter melody and a harmony line.

A harmony line is also a way of supporting the leading melody, but it is even more powerful than a counter melody, since it adds depth and strength to the melody.

You can use this to your advantage as a composer, by choosing how much weight and strength you want to add to the leading melody in various sections of your composition.

Even simply accenting a few notes on the leading melody by having the counter melody instrument backing up those notes with a harmony.

So you can go from no counter melody, and no support. To adding a counter melody for extra details and variation. To making the supportive instrument play in harmony for even greater support.

So when going into the most powerful section of your song, your counter melody instrument can switch into playing a harmony to add that extra depth and power to your melody.

4. Less is More

What do I mean? Well simply to make the counter melody play only a few notes. It’s like having the supportive actor say less words than the lead actor.

The counter melody is there to add detail, variation and contrast…not to shadow the leading melody in any way.

5. Range is Important

Now where you actually place the counter melody range-wise (meaning which octave) compared to the main melody is also important. If you use the same range, make sure you use a instrument that is very different in tone and character from the main melody, otherwise they will just blend together.

However I recommend placing the counter-melody an octave above or below the main melody for added separation.

Now Take Action!

Great! Now go ahead and try this out for yourself. Learn by doing, from using these guidelines and practicing melody vs counter melody in your music compositions. I wish you great success on your professional journey in music! =)

After this section, you should be able to create simple harmonies for your melodies and vocal lines, and make sure they don’t clash with the rest of the band.

Harmonising sounds like a complicated term, but it simply means playing more than one note at a time. A chord contains harmony, so if you’ve been playing chords, you’ve automatically been doing it already!

But how do we USE harmony to enrich a melody or vocal line?

Well that all depends on what you want. Some people like really beautiful, sweet harmonies, whilst others like nasty harmonies that clash and create a discordant sound. As a rule:

Major Harmonies will create a happier type sound

Minor harmonies will create a sadder type of sound

Diminished harmonies sound more discordant

On a personal note, my favourite harmonies are minor 3rds, perfect 4ths, and minor and Major 6ths. My ear tends to like more melancholy types of music, but I also love Mozart who wrote some pretty happy tunes!!

How to create a harmony:

Here’s a step-by-step process you can use to create a harmony for any melody you wish to use.

  • Write your melody out on manuscript paper, and/or record it
  • On another stave, write out the melody again but a third higher. So if, for example, you started the original piece on G, start the second stave on B. Notice that although I went a third HIGHER, I placed the harmony underneath, as if I placed it higher it would then become more dominant than the original melody. There are no rules here, but for now I would stay within the same key signature and not add any sharps or flats.
  • Repeat the exercise, but write out the melody a fourth higher than the original. So for example, if you started the melody on A in the original stave, write it out but start on D.

    Now write out the same melody, but start a sixth higher than the original. So in this example, we’ll start on F

  • Play each harmony over the original melody
  • Mark which passages you like the sound of or dislike the sound of from each one.
  • Mix up the three new harmonies until you have a new, finished, combination harmony you really like.
  • Write this one out, and this becomes your new harmony.

    You can use this method for vocal lines, piano lines, guitars, strings. you name it. You can do his with any harmony you like, and you DON’T have to stay within the key, but at the beginning, it’s a good idea to keep within the key until you’re a bit more confident, and you’re happy with the harmonies you’re creating.

    A mistake a lot of people make when they’re starting to create harmonies, is harmonising EVERY note in the melody or phrase. You definitely don’t have to do this. Many pieces of music will have a really simple harmony going in the bass or mid range, while a more frantic melody line goes over the top. Let’s take a look at how we can do this. We’ll use the same melody line, but we’ll just simplify it so it’s a lot less “busy”.

    Here is the original melody with a harmony placed underneath.

    How to compose a melody

    Please bear in mind that these are ONLY examples and you can use any harmony you like. If you want to write an entire harmony consisting of nothing but diminished fifths, then go for it. It will probably sound a bit weird, but as a musician, that’s perfectly up to you.

    What you’ve learned:

  • How to take a melody and create as many harmonies as you like from it
  • How to pick which harmonies sound best and how to integrate them to create a finished harmony.
  • Want to keep this website free? Please make a donation by clicking on the link below.

    If you have any questions, please contact me on my e-mail at:

    How to Write a Jazz Melody or Song

    “What makes jazz… jazz?” This was the first question I posed to my band director after he foolishly agreed to mentor my Eighth Grade Independent Study Project. I had chosen the topic of music composition. We had just entered his office. He took a breath. After a few minutes of back and forth about rhythm and dominant-seventh chords (e.g.“But just because a piece is swung doesn’t turn it into jazz, does it?”), he turned to his bookshelf and plopped four thick volumes down on his desk: A New History of Jazz , Jazz Anecdotes , The Jazz Book , and The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz .

    “You’re going to need these.”

    Outline of Jazz History (Simplified)

    • 19th c: Gospel, African American spirituals
    • Late 19th c: Ragtime (Scott Joplin)
    • Early 20th c: New Orleans (Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton)
    • Early 20th c: Blues (Louis Armstrong, Ma Rainey)
    • 1920s: New Orleans in Chicago (King Oliver)
    • 1920s: Dixieland (ODJB)
    • 1930s: Swing (Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller)
    • Early 1940s: Bebop (Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk)
    • 1950s: Hard Bop (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus)
    • 1950s: Cool Jazz (Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck)
    • 1960s: Free Jazz (Ornette Coleman)
    • 1970s: Funk, Fusion (Herbie Hancock)

    Best Books for Learning to Write Jazz

    • Method Book—”Intro to Jazz Piano” (Mark Harrison): https://www.amazon. com/Intro-Jazz-Piano-Leonard- Keyboard-ebook/dp/B00JZNNC6W
    • Reference/advanced—”Jazz Theory Book” (Mark Levine): https://www.amazon. com/Jazz-Theory-Book-Mark- Levine/dp/1883217040/ref=sr_1_ 1
    • For practicing—”The Real Book”: https://www.amazon.com/ Real-Book-Hal-Leonard- Corporation/dp/0634060384/ref= asc_df_0634060384/

    Other Resources for Learning to Write Jazz

    • Helpful YouTube video: https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=lCAdCneGK5A
    • Quick online introduction: https://musictheory. pugetsound.edu/mt21c/ IntroductionToJazzTheory.html

    Listening Suggestions for Learning to Write Jazz

    Jazz is all about listening, repeating, and changing. Start by listening to these albums and artists:

    • “1923/24” (Jelly Roll Morton)
    • Anything by Fats Waller
    • Hot Fives & Sevens (Louis Armstrong)
    • Ella & Louis (Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong)
    • Live at Carnegie Hall, 1938 (Benny Goodman)
    • Some early Duke Ellington (pre-1945)
    • Zodiac Suite (Mary Lou Williams)
    • Kind of Blue (Miles Davis)
    • Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (full album)
    • Giant Steps (John Coltrane)
    • Genius of Modern Music: Vol. 1 (Thelonious Monk)
    • Solo Monk (Thelonious Monk)
    • Piano Starts Here (Art Tatum)
    • Mingus Ah Um (Charles Mingus)
    • Maiden Voyage (Herbie Hancock)
    • Time Out (Dave Brubeck Quartet)

    How a Teacher Can Help

    To properly learn how to write jazz music, it is important to get personalized feedback from a teacher. Jazz is essentially an oral tradition that cannot be fully learned through books without interacting with and receiving feedback from other musicians and composers. Luckily, online lessons are available. I am a composer trained at Yale University and in Paris. As I mentioned, jazz was my introduction to music composition. For advice on finding a teacher, please contact me and I will respond as soon as possible!

    How To Compose A Good Melody

    In a recent Composition Corner post, I talked about 5 problems that students often have when writing melodies or writing pieces. Today, I would like to start to give you some general components how to compose a good melody so that you can be better equipped to evaluate the melodies of your students. Keep in mind that there are many exceptions to these guidelines, so they should not be viewed as “rules.” There are great reasons for not using these guidelines such as atonal melodies, minimalistic music, and more. If students are interested in creating these kinds of music, that should certainly be explored. But, it is my opinion that all composition students or students dabbling in composition should know how compose a good melody, preferably before exploring other types of melodies.

    A good melody works because it connects with people. The guidelines I will be presenting in the next few weeks will describe the characteristics of a good melody. In addition, a teacher or student who asks “Why does this connect? Why does this work?” will come away with the best understanding of how to create a good melody, though asking these questions is not necessary to following these guidelines. Because of this, I’m going to suggest some reasons why these these work and how they connect with people.

    The first element of a good melody is contour.

    1. In order to compose a good melody it should have a good contour.

    • A good melody will have only 1 apex. This is the most important part of the phrase, so it should be set apart in its singularity.
    • Ways to highlight your apex might be to set it off by a leap or placing it in an unexpected place (not beat 1 or 3 of a measure).Some possible contours include:
    • An arch. Imagine an arch where the highest point is slightly to the right.
      A great place to put your apex is about 2/3 of the way into the melody as in the Traumerei of Schumann:

    How to compose a melody

  • An inverted arch. Imagine an upside down march. Sometimes it is effective to make your “apex” the lowest note of the melody. Beethoven does this brilliantly in Ode to Joy.
  • A ramp. The apex of your melody will be at the beginning or the end in this contour. Somewhere Over the Rainbow is an excellent example of this contour. The composer’s highest note is at the beginning of the melody and the rest of the melody is spent descending to the low tonic.
  • Why does a melody need to have a good contour?

    A good contour directs the listener’s ear into the tension, resolution, and most important points in a smooth and digestible way.

    What would you say?

    Take a look at this actual student melody and try your hand at evaluating its contour. If you think it is necessary, make a few suggestions to this student to improve their melody.

    How to compose a melody

    Above all, the most important element in making music memorable and catchy is the melody. As such, this sequence of notes, created from pitch and rhythm, is the tune we as listeners tend to remember.

    Firstly, before creating a melody from scratch, let’s listen to a couple of famous melodies from the modern era.

    Depeche Mode – Enjoy The Silence

    Ayla – Ayla (DJ Taucher Mix)

    Captain Melody 5.0

    • Write melodies that suit your chord progression
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    How to compose a melody

    The melodies in these examples are quite obvious, as a result of being played by instruments. All mainstream music contains a melody. However, these melodies are often performed by a vocalist, rather than an instrument.

    For example, the chorus melody of the Bee Gees’ hit record Stayin’ Alive is composed almost purely of vocals. The melodic instrumental element – an electric guitar – plays after the chorus.

    It could be argued that the guitar is also playing a melody. However, the guitar could also be considered to be playing a motif. This is due to its short and repetitive nature. Additionally, it would also be correct to consider the guitar a countermelody, or similarly, a secondary melody to the main vocal melody.

    As vocalists hit notes, similar to other instruments. It’s possible to take a vocal melody and replicate it using a non-human instrument.

    Here’s what the chorus of Stayin’ Alive sounds like when played on a piano rather than by a vocalist:

    Basic Tips

    Let’s look at how we can create a melody using these basic tips.

    • Working with a vocalist

    It’s worth finding out if they have a preferred key in which they like to sing, as a result, it prevents having to transpose the music later in the writing process.

    • Lay down some chords

    Chords are super-important to any song. For instance, if you have a chord progression already in place, writing a melody to match will be much easier.

    • Find the key and scale

    By knowing the key and scale, you can identify which notes you can use for the melody. For example, if you are writing in E Major you can use the notes E, F♯, G♯, A, B, C♯, and D♯.

    • Play and record

    As a result of auditioning your ideas and recording them, you can take the best parts and edit them together.

    Advanced Tips

    Now try writing a melody using these advanced techniques.

    • Repeat with variations

    Create short motifs, repeat them and add variations to maintain interest.

    • Use call and response

    Call and response, or similarly, question and answer, is achieved by creating two musical phrases separated with the latter phrase appearing to respond to the first.

    • Select the best timbre

    Not all instrument sounds will work well for a melody. Stick to sounds which can cut through the mix and will compliment the other instruments.

    • Use a higher octave

    If, for example, the other instruments in the arrangement are dominating the 3rd octave, try playing the melody on the 4th Octave. This helps separate the the instruments and allows the melody to be heard more clearly.

    • Use Stepwise or Melodic Motion

    Limit the interval between consecutive notes to an adjacent note in the scale. For example, only using occasional jumps – which are more than one note – helps to create a more natural melody. This is also beneficial if the melody is to be sung.

    Let Us Demonstrate

    A short video demonstration, showing how to create a melody using Captain Chords and Captain Melody.

    And another more detailed example. This time using more instruments.

    It’s super easy to create your own ideas from scratch. Visit the official Captain Melody homepage and see how it will help you explore music and write your own original productions.

    Get your Captain Plugins now.

    Buy with confidence. We give you a 30-day money-back guarantee with every purchase.

    This one is for all the songwriters and composers out there. I’m often asked how to write a melody, so I’m going to share some tips that I have which might help you.

    Before I start – it’s important to state that these are some of MY ideas, but there are many more out there, and when it comes to music there are exceptions to every rule.

    Start with a chord progression

    Every great melody has a chord progression built underneath it. It’s kind of like the foundation we’ll use, and it helps give us guidance to choose the notes for our melody.

    When you’re starting out, it helps to choose a simple chord progression that sounds nice. If you’ve watched many of our videos you’ll know some of the most common chord progressions out there. Today we’ll use the 1-6-5-4 progression in the key of D major.

    Play the scale over each chord

    This step helps us explore all the notes in the scale so that we can identify the ones that we like. During this step you’ll probably hear notes and think, “Oh I like that!” or “That sounded bad.”

    It’s a good idea to make a mental note of which sounds you DO like, but make sure to play the scale over ALL the chords because the notes will have different characteristics depending on which chord they are played with.

    Think about the ‘role’ that each note plays

    In Western music, every note in a scale serves a role, or a function. Some notes create tension, while others create resolution.

    Learning a few simple things about what role the notes of the scale play will help you put them together in an order that makes sense and is nice to listen to.

    Pick a combination of tones

    This is the fun part. Think about the notes you heard in step two that you liked, and try combining several notes over the chords, thinking also about their role.

    This step involves a lot of trial and error, but that’s ok! And remember you don’t have to get too complicated to create a really beautiful and memorable melody. Sometimes the simple things are the best.

    So those are a few steps you can use to help you get started. As I said at the beginning these are just some guidelines. When you start to play around with melodies you might find notes and sounds that you love — which are NOT in the scale you’re working in.

    There are always exceptions to every rule.

    The most important thing is to have fun!

    How to compose a melody

    Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for 19 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others.

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    How to compose a melody

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