Songwriting – Compose Fresh Melodies

The Problem with Western scales is they only contain 12 notes.
Publish date:
Updated on
Image placeholder title

Fig. 1. An arbitrary time-range selection is made across multiple instrumental tracks in Digital Performer (DP), beginning on beat 3 of bar 85 and ending on beat 3 of the following bar. The selection is snapped to DP’s grid and looped to provide inspiration for writing a new melody.
The Problem with Western scales is they only contain 12 notes. It’s all too easy to write a melody that sounds a lot like the tune you wrote yesterday. To revitalize your creative muse, jettison old routines that steer your efforts toward a familiar outcome. Try these six unorthodox approaches to writing unique melodies.

Swap Instruments Composing on an instrument you play well isn’t always a boon to fresh writing. That’s because your fingers will naturally want to go where they’re most comfortable, which is where they’ve been before. Not fresh!

Try writing a melody on an instrument you’re all fumble-fingers with. For example, if guitar is your forte, give piano or a MIDI keyboard a shot. You’re bound to play a lot of unintended notes. Some of them will be happy accidents that will serve as a springboard for your imagination. Suddenly, a passing tone you would’ve never intentionally played suggests a temporary modulation and a non-diatonic harmony. You’re off to the races!

Ditch the Instrument The linchpin of most great songs is an unforgettable melody. From that perspective, writing a chord progression before the melody is putting the cart before the horse. It also hamstrings your melody by forcing it to jibe with the harmony structure and meter of your nascent accompaniment. So write the melody first, if you can.

Try composing the melody in your head, without playing any instrument. Your imagination is more boundless than your instrumental prowess will ever be. Take a leisurely walk or drive, and use your recreation time to construct the melody by singing it. Bring a pocket recorder or notation paper and a pencil along to document your ideas. You won’t be distracted by having to play a compatible accompaniment on your instrument as your melody evolves. The melody will be your sole focus, and it will be stronger because you wrote it without the crutch of flattering instrumental support.

After you return to your studio with your freshly minted melody, arrange the harmony structure for it. Composing chords to fit a unique melody will likely spawn an accompaniment you never would have come up with on its own. Now you’re writing like you’ve never written before.

Modulate à la Mode Does your new ballad sound too much like a stock melody? Don’t ditch it yet! Transpose it to a different mode. A mundane melody written in Ionian mode might sound totally intriguing after it is transposed to, say, Dorian or Lydian mode. The ends of phrases that used to resolve so predictably on the scale’s tonic now leave the listener suspended. The wholesale transposition might not be perfect, though. You’ll probably need to tweak some individual notes further. That’s okay. The fire has been lit!

Adopt the Harmony Part If modes aren’t in your skill set, there’s another way to transform a run-of-the-mill melody into something more compelling. Compose a contrapuntal background vocal part (one that doesn’t consistently use parallel harmony) for your humdrum melody. Once the BV is scribed, ditch the main melody and make the BV your starting point for forging your new tune.

Turn it Upside Down or Backward Your DAW probably allows you to invert a melody or play it in reverse. If so, record the MIDI notes for your melody into your DAW and apply one of these tune-twisting algorithms. The wild-card result will probably need further editing but will hopefully spark your imagination and get the ball rolling.

Loop it Open one of your past projects in your DAW and mute all the vocal tracks, including BVs. Make a time-range selection (snapped to the DAW’s grid) across most or all of the instrumental tracks, beginning on any beat except beat 1 and lasting for exactly four beats (see Figure 1). Loop your selection and give it a listen. The eccentric placement of the loop points (not being on the downbeats of bars) will likely cause your selection to bear little resemblance to the original song it was extracted from. Hearing this “new” full-production teaser, however short, might inspire you to write the beginning of an entirely new melody. If not, choose loop points in another section of the song (or in another project) and see if that ignites your mojo.

Loops work best for repetitive or sequence-based composing. They might only engender a few bars of melody to begin with, but if they kick you out of your writer’s block, that’s a good thing!