Shapes, Rules and Melody

There are many different ways to approach writing music. Sometimes you start with a rhythmic idea, or an interesting chord progression. Often the first step is a to write a little bit of melody. No matter what element you start with, you end up filling in the blanks later, and in most cases you end up juggling all of these elements simultaneously. When teaching composition to kids, I find it helpful in the beginning to focus on each of these elements separately.

This past Tuesday, we focused on the ingredients of a good melody. Our challenge: How to you take seven notes and arrange them in a way that makes sense? The answer: Give them an interesting shape (melodic contour) and use a combination of repetition and contrast (form).

Below are the step we followed to create our melody.

1. Sing “Follow the Drinking Gourd“— Identify different sections(A, B, C). How many times do we hear A? Are there different versions of A?

2. Create the melodic contour by mapping a melody, using the same method as story arc.

• We will begin by creating a short A section.
• You have seven (eight, counting the octave) notes of a major or minor scale to work from.
• You are allowed only one climax. The highest note can only be used once.
• Indicate which notes are approached by step and which are approached by leap
• If you approach a note by leap, you must follow it by a step in the opposite direction.
• Once you have sketched the shape of your melody, indicate exactly which notes lie where (the lowest being 1, the highest being 7)
• Sing through these notes several times, and listen to them on the piano. Which notes should move quickly or slowly? Which should be held for a long time? Which should be staccato and. legato?

Here is the melodic contour map that Susanna (age 11) created

9.30 Susanna composition shape

As we worked, we thought about a few additional things:

• As in drinking gourd, we can have two slightly different A sections: the first is like a question, and ends on some note higher than 1 (probably 2). The following A section (A’) provides the answer and ends on 1.
• Can we identify any melodic patterns that we can repeat on different notes? These are called sequences.
• When we write a B section, we can use the same collection of notes, but start and end slightly higher or lower. This will give us some contrast between the A and B sections, as well as a different climax note.

Here’s what Susanna’s melody sounded like at the end of the process

 

– by Alex Stein
Resident Composer, 2014-2015