Songwriting Part 15 - Melody Mapping

by SaskMusic

July 31, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

I sometimes find a melody being written in my head and don't want to immediately limit it to a major/minor chord (or any chord in particular) right away, instead giving it time to develop itself on its own without restrictions. (This also gives you the freedom to "sing it" in different keys and not notate it to a chord chart until you've settled on one.)

In order to recognize the melodies that you're writing as specific tones or notes, it can be very helpful to understand the basics of intervals. You can learn to do this (if you haven't already) without playing them on an instrument, although it would be helpful.

Let's review (or learn) what each interval sounds like so we have a reference point in our head. Sing (or play) each of these:

Minor 2nd (2) (C to Db): a semitone. Sounds like the first two notes of "The Pink Panther" theme, or "Jaws" theme.

Major 2nd (+2) (C to D): a whole tone. The first two notes in a Major scale. The Do-Re in Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do.

Minor 3rd (3) (C to Eb): If used in a Major-tone piece, the minor third is not a regular scale-tone, but is a "blues note" (generally) used for effect. The first two notes of "O Canada" or "Oh Where Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?"

Major 3rd (+3) (C to E): Do-Mi. The first two notes of "The Bear Went Over the Mountain". A third above the lead note is a common interval used for singing harmonies.

Perfect 4th (P4) (C to F): Do-Fa. The first two notes of "Here Comes the Bride" or "O Christmas Tree".

Augmented 4th/Diminished 5th (X4 or O5) (C to F#): A tension-filled interval which is rarely used...see later song examples.

Perfect 5th (P5) (C to G): Do-So. The first interval in "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" (Twinkle (CC) TWINKLE (GG)).s

Minor 6th (6) (C to Ab): Another rarely used interval. The first two notes in "Maria" (West Side Story).

Major 6th (+6) (C to A): Do-La. The first two notes in "My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean".

Minor 7th (7) (C to Bb): Another "blues note", if used in a major tone song.

Major 7th (+7) (C to B): Do-Ti. Another tension-filled interval, but more commonly used, especially in jazz where 7th chords are frequently used.

Perfect Octave (P8) (C to C above): Do-Do. The first two notes in the chorus of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

If you're a vocalist, learning to recognize specific intervals by ear can help your singing. You can refer to these when you need to reach a difficult note ("oh, the note I'm supposed to hit sounds like My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean"!)

Where do these names come from? Here's a bit of theory. On a piano, a semitone is the interval from any key to the next closest key (whether black or white); a whole tone is the interval from any key to another two places away, with one piano key between them. On a guitar, a semitone is the interval from one fret to the very next (on the same string). A whole would be two places away, i.e. one fret to another two places away, with one fret between them.

All major scales are built this specific pattern of semitones (S) and tones (T):

C     D      E      F      G        A         B      C
   T      T      S      T        T        T       S

A specific interval is always two keys a set distance apart (the same number of number of tones and semitones apart), no matter what key you would choose to start on. For example, a minor third is any two keys that are a tone+ a semitone apart (or, you could say 3 semitones apart). A major sixth is any two keys that are 8 semitones apart.

In giving a name to our intervals we look at the lower of the two notes to determine "what the key is" for this interval. If your interval is D to F#, we use the D major scale. F# is the third tone in the D major scale, therefore this interval is a major 3rd. If the interval is Eb to Gb, we use the Eb major sale. The G is lowered a semitone from where it should be in a major scale, therefore this is a minor third. (There's more to be said on intervals, but not enough room here. If you need a full lesson about them you would probably find a good theory book helpful.)

We will also look at steps and skips. A step (st) is the distance from one letter name to the next letter name (C to D, or A to G). A skip (sk) is any distance greater than a step, or one is which you have to "skip over" some notes to get to your destination.

Let's look at the intervals utilized in a few hit songs, and how the use of untypical intervals adds to their uniqueness or "memorability factor".

Somewhere Over the Rainbow...(music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E.Y. Harburg)

Notice how the chorus begins and ends on the tonic note (this is notated in C major, so the tonic note is C), with the melody "returning" often to the tonic. The first two notes in this selection cover a full octave. (This is a fairly large jump for a vocalist to handle.) Also note how the melody gradually descends in thirds singing to a C in bar one, an A in bar 4, an F in bar 5, a D in bar 7. The phrase of bars 1-2 is echoed, but not identically repeated, in bars 5-6.

Yesterday...(by the Beatles)

Here the melody climbs up and down in steps, but does not follow the major scale. A combination of major and minor 2nds gives it its memorable tonality.

Now take into account speaking style. You might also note how each phrase ends. In the English language, when making a statement or relating something, we usually trail off, change our speaking tone from high to lower. Phrases generally trail downward to mark the end of a sentence. As in...

Hello, I'm pleased to meet you.

We usually raise our speaking tone from lower to higher when asking a question. As in...

Are you really going to wear that?

In the above examples, the phrases turn like this (think of the last interval in each one)...

Somewhere over the rainbow,                     (up)

way up high,                                            (down)
There's a land that I heard of                       (up)

once in a lullaby.                                      (down)

Yesterday                                                (down)

All my troubles seemed so far away           (down)

Now it looks as though they're here to stay (down)

Oh, I believe in yesterday.                           (up)

This upward/downward phrasing is often utilized in sung language as well (although not a "planned" effect). Verse phrases often trail downward, while bridges (often where the highest note in the song is found) may soar upward.

What quality do these songs, and other timeless hits, possess that give them their enduring appeal? The lyrics aren't always sophisticated, by any means. But they have a unique melodic structure that sticks in your head.

Using an unexpected interval (effectively, of course) can be the basis for a strong hook, or even a whole song section.

This song possesses unique starting intervals that grab your attention right from the start, using the bluesy minor 3rd. After than that, it's pretty straightforward both melodically and lyrically.

Blue (recorded by LeAnn Rimes)

Take note of the implied augmented 4th here (F# to tonic note C)...

Eleanor Rigby (by the Beatles)

If you aren't familiar with it, I recommend also listening to "How Do I Live", written by Diane Warren and recorded by Trisha Yearwood (also recorded by LeAnn Rimes and other artists). This hit is a great example of how effective an interesting melody can be. The melody throughout the whole song is unique and requires a good vocalist to hit the unique intervals dead on.

Force yourself to write in ways you normally wouldn't. The first melody that pops into your head may be comfortable, but that doesn't mean it's the best one: It may be there because you've heard it before, used it before, because it's easy. One note can make all the difference in determining whether you've got a mediocre melody or a masterpiece. Don't quit trying out different notes until you find the one that really makes your melody "pop" out!

Don't be afraid to make vocalists work a little for a good melody. However, remember that intervals of more than one octave will be difficult for most singers. Variety is good, but beware of a vocal line with too many sudden ups and downs. "Jerky" melodies are difficult to sing and have to be well performed to be presented effectively.

Try this exercise: Stick all letter names in a hat (C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B) and draw two. Find at least three different ways to get from the first note to the second, using different combinations to get from point A to point B. Use different combinations of steps and skips. Write "around the note," going higher or lower then your destination point and then working your way back to it. Remember, you can go in three different directions to get anywhere: up, down, and parallel (same note repeated). Now go try something new, and have fun!

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published June/July 2001.

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