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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Tip #25 – Escape Chord Movement

To remind, an escape tone is a nonharmonic tone that creates dissonance on a weak beat by moving stepwise, and resolving my skip to a chord tone on the next strongest beat.

This nonharmonic motion can also by applied to the chordal resolution of a cadential phrase to delay the resolution as well as introduce new harmonic motion to lessen the impact of a direct V – I ending. Also, by simply introducing dissonant tones one degree lower/higher than the intended triadic chord tone, it can result in the same effect.


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Tip #24 – Getting the Best Out of Bitonal Cadences

They say two heads are better than one, so why not two tonalities/modalities?

This works well when there are two performers (or one that can be divided into two voices – like left & right hand piano) that can individually create their own tonal center.

Not only is it writing a cadential phrase for each, but it writing a cadence in which they sonically sound good with each other… or not, if that is what you want to go for.

Experiment around, and see which pitch collections work well with each other.


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Tip #23 – Finding a Good Modal/Synthetic Cadence

Today is a small tip on how to use your ears and basic knowledge of voice-leading when it comes to building a cadential sound when in a tonal mode – or using a synthetic scale.

First, know where is your tonal center, or I chord. This will obviously be your home base.

Now, find scale degrees that can act as sol/5 or ti/7 to the root of the scale.

Next, find other leading tones and see if they can be added to the previous incomplete V structure.

Finally, experiment with these tones, adding and subtracting, to build a cadential chord that has a strong pull back to your I chord with an unresolved sound. Easier said than done, for sure, but this exercise will certainly train your ears more to know how your compositions flows within a mode or synthetic scale.

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Tip #20 – Coming Home to your Newly Renovated Tonic

Along your musical journey in your upcoming work, you might stray away from your home (the tonic) only to come back… at yet, while it seems familiar, there is something different. Things aren’t quite the same…

Sometimes to achieve this sense of a perfect cadence, but with emotional feels of nostalgia – or maybe something is out of place – the tonic triad “home-base” needs to be modified in some way.

This can be done easily by adding a note outside of the usually harmony. 7ths and upper extensions can work, but aim for when voicing this newly adapted tonic that this additional color tone is placed discretely to give the chord a new shading.


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Tip #19 – Evading A Cadence

Take a look at this cadential figure below:

We can tell that this piece is in the key of a minor and uses a V – i ending. Now, let’s lessen the strength of this ending with an evaded cadence.

In an evaded cadence, extra measures are added to dilute the ending structure, and more likely than not, the motion is creatively headed into a new key area.

In the edit above, a few more measures of the penultimate measure were repeated and varied. Then, the harmonic motion was turned from a V – i ending in the key of a minor, to a IV – I plagal cadence in the key of B Major.


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Tip #18 – Implying A Cadence

Look at this example below:

We can see a lot of things from this; in particular, we have some cadential motion going on with a raised C# to D in the key of d minor. Also, there is an F underneath the D which make up an i chord of Dm. Plus, there is an A bass root in the pervious bar which act as a V to i cadence.

But there really isn’t a root motion of V to i at all with the bass note missing. Yet, if performed, we do hear this as a cadence.

Point I’m getting at: sometimes even with the removal of “the floor beneath” you can still imply a cadence. While it is certainly not as strong as a perfect authentic cadence in full, it might be the weak cadence you are looking for.


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Tip #17 – Ways To Milk The End

While one option is to end with a cadence that is short & sweet (or even to the short-end extreme of abrupt/without-warning), another is to milk it for as long as possible. Take a cadential phrase like this:

Even though a simple way is to stretch it out with some prolongation of the tones, there are more creative ways.

Commonly found in classical music, the cadential chord can receive some treatment of reiteration in different inversions, vertical structures, voicings, registers, etc.

Another way to lengthen the end is to arpeggiate the chord out:


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Tip #16 – Suppress an Ending with an Elided Cadence Maneuver

Continuing on the topic of lessening the impact of a cadential figure in order to maintain a sense of flow while signaling to the listener the termination of a phrase, we are going to look at the use of an elided cadence.

Think about using an elided cadence as crossing the finish line – but still continuing to run. It occurs in music when a new phrase begins before or at the same time as the cadential chord that is just about to close the previous musical idea.

Here is the tail-end of a musical phrase with the cadence happening on beat one and stopping right there in its tracks:

To lessen the sudden impact of the stop in motion, try having a voice start a new phrase. It could look something like this:

This gives the flow of being together, but at the same time being two different recognizable ideas.


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Tip #15 – Colors in a Delayed Cadence

In a world where perfection is held high, imperfection can & should shine just as bright with its own uniqueness. Modern academics in composition teach how to write perfect cadential figures, but they should not be look as an end-all-be-all as how to conclude a musical idea.

Beautiful colors can bleed into the holes of a cadential phrase by delaying the resolution of a voice (usually the melody) with a suspension or appoggiatura. Eventually, it will resolve on a weaker beat, but the goal is to land on a tone not typically found in the cadential chord.


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