Teach Yourself Music Theory – 39.) Beginning to Craft a Melody

As mentioned previously, Renaissance era counterpoint was vocal – but that doesn’t mean that they song only on “ooo”s and “ahh”s. Their lyrics usually came from liturgical texts, like psalms.

Before beginning to write a contrapuntal piece, one must be able to master the style of writing a single melodic line before trying to weave multiple independent lines together. This blog will talk about the process of doing so.

First thing you want to do is decide on the text you want to set to music.

Second, you will need to decide on the appropriate mode. Each mode has its own qualities an shades to best fit the mode of the text.

Third, you will want to assign the melody to the right voice. Look below at the different voice ranges. The out-most notes are the “extremes of the voice range, while the two pitches in the middle connected by a line suggest the comfort range:

Fourth, start the melody on the authentic or plagal pitch. Adjacent voices (when we start incorporating more melodic lines) with start on the opposite choice.

Fifth, start writing your melody to shape the text. Keep in mind:

  • Word Painting – doing something musical to invoke the images of the lyrics
  • Accenting important words with skips and leaps
  • Keeping the overall melodic line moving with stepwise motion instead of repeating notes
  • Be sure to cover the range of the mode within the limits of the vocalist without hitting the extremes too much
  • Have a interesting melodic contour
  • Avoid outlining or moving by dissonant intervals

Sixth, cadence by stepwise motion from above or below.

  • The Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian modes should have the their leading tones raised.
  • Ionian and Lydian already have natural leading tones and require no raising of pitches.
  • Phrygian has its own unique cadence of going down by half-step and going up by whole-step.
  • The Aeolian mode can have a “Phrygian cadence” by lowering the tone from above.

Below is a chart of the modes as if they were in the key of C:

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Improve Your Lyrics – Tip #52

In most cases when writing a song, the chorus will feature the title or at least the main line. The word or words that will stick in the listeners head even when the song is over.

But, where to you put the title line? At the beginning of the chorus or at the end?

Well, either option can work. However, deciding between putting the main line at the beginning or at the end can greatly impact how the message gets across to the listeners. Let’s take a look:

When you put the title line at the beginning of the chorus, you tell the audience just by the placement of the line that this is important. That of all the lyrical lines in the chorus, the first one is the most important. Plus, putting the title line at the beginning of the chorus allows you to repeat it if necessary throughout the rest.

Saving the title line for the end doesn’t give you the luxury of repeating it as much as if you were to put it in the beginning. However, it makes interest grow because you create suspension by saving the line (the punch) for the end. Just be sure you don’t drag it out so much that people forget it is the chorus.

Try both and see how you song works!

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Tip #247 – Setting a Sample to a Pitch

Sometimes, we just default to the idea that the sound sample that a person takes (whether of an instrument, pitch or unpitched, sound effect, etc.) should stay at its captured pitch.

Thanks to the advance in music technologies from the 1980’s to present-day, we have the ability to modulate the pitch of any sound. In addition, we have the ability to tune any captured sound to a frequency we desire.

Experiment with taking sounds like a kick drum, an explosion, a tap on the table, an animal sound, etc. and tune it to several different pitches. Then, try to use what you have melodically! Take advantage of the technology you have before you!

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 38.) Melodic Restrictions

Music during the Renaissance era were written mostly for voice. As one would assume, the music made was in turn restricted by the capabilities of the voice. Meaning, that the range of the melody in Renaissance counterpoint was limited to that of voice (review the modes and see how each fit with a voice part). In addition, the melodic contour and interval make up of the melody had to be written at the ease of a vocalist. So, no difficult leaps or jumps!

Below is a chart of all the melodic intervals used for composing in the Renaissance era, their direction of ascending or descending, and how frequently they were used:

One thing to take note in the chart above is the banning of augmented and diminished intervals. In any natural key, there will be a tritone formed between two pitches. Not only does this ban include the melodic and harmonic intervals, but also the melodic outline. Meaning, a melody starting on F and ascending stepwise to B would be unacceptable because the melody spanned a tritone. Composers of the Renaissance era used musica ficta, accidentals, to get around this by flattening pitches to correct them to a P4 or P5.

Occasionally, musica ficta was used to raise pitches, but that would only appear at cadential points. Regardless, these accidentals are to be used as little as possible.

Besides that, there are some other rules to follow when constructing a melody:

  • Use steps more often than skips.
  • Precede and follow a large skip with stepwise motion in the opposite direction
  • Don’t use more than two skips in succession
  • Two skips in succession should cover a P5 or P8 in range.
  • Rarely, a P4 may follow a P4 in the same direction – same as P5’s.
  • An ascending P5 may be followed by a m3 in the same direction, if the mode is Dorian.
  • Attempt to stay within the “pyramid rule” of having larger intervals of skips in succession stay at the bottom.
  • Never have your melodic line outline a dissonant interval (expect for a m7).
  • Be cautious with repeating notes, as the melody becomes too stagnant.
  • Arrive at the extremes of you modal range with steps instead of skips.
  • Accidents are to be resolved in their proper manner (flats go down, sharps go up).

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Tip #246 – Start Small Before Going Big

Remember how when you first started out… with pretty much anything, you had to start at the beginner level, or with the smallest amount, or in the most simplest form? Same rule applies to when writing for an ensemble.

The excitement of getting to write for an 80-piece orchestra might be hard to handle, but before rushing in to see how you’ll write for each instrument – start out small. Start by section, and go even small to groups.

Meaning, you might have the capability to write for 10 horns. Start instead by writing as if you only had 2 horns available. Then write as if you only had 3. Now 4.

At this point, you will begin to train yourself to write first the necessities and then worry about how you will orchestrate across a large ensemble.

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Thinking Out Loud – Hybrid or Ambiguous?

I recently heard a person use the word “hybrid” to describe music used for a film that could work for multiple scenarios/emotions. That a piece of music that was originally locked in place for a sad scene could also be used for a triumphant moment as well.

When I think of the word “hybrid,” I think “the best of both words” of combining two or more things together to create something better. However, is this music really more of a “hybrid” or an ambiguous score? Also, is there any skill of making one more than the other?

And this question goes beyond scores – it applies to writing any kind of music. From fusing genres together, you are teetering on the fine line between creating a hybrid or something ambiguous.

My question is on if there is a risk of making this “hybrid” or ambiguous music. Is there artistry is writing a piece of music that could serve on multiple levels (be it for use, emotion, genre, etc.), or does it spread the art too thin?

Personally, I think there is some kind of achievement in your music could live in multiple worlds. But if something is made ambiguous without intention, then that’s on the fault of the composer. What’s your take?

Just thinking out loud.

Tip #245 – Understanding the Jhalavarali Scale

The Carnatic music of South India has 72 scales (melakartas) comprised of seven different notes in either an ascending (arohana) or descending (avarohana) fashion. These scales are used in a kind of India music called rāga and are extremely beautiful. In addition these scales are grouped into different chakras, based on certain similarities.

Today’s melakarta is the Jhalavarali scale, the third scale from the seventh chakra.

Below is a representation of the scale as if it was put into Western notation:

Both the first (SA) and fifth (PA) scale degrees are in a placement normal to most scales found in Western music.  However, the lowered second (RI) and third (GA) scale degrees as well as the raised fourth (MA) degree creates chromatic lines.  Plus, there is a raised seventh degree (NI).

Try playing around with the scale, possible harmonies, and progressions!

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