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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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 #244 – Expanded Possibilities with a Limited Melody

This has apparently been going around the web:

With the most recent pop music hitting radio stations and streaming platforms, there seems to be a rise in a stagnant melody. Such as one where the chorus of the song form features a melody were it is just on one note.

For compositional and performance purposes, this is really easy. I mean, it is only one pitch – you can’t really mess that up so much. However, as an arranger for harmonic purposes, you have a load of possibilities.

More often than not, people make the pitch the fifth of the chord because it makes the tonality of the key (major or minor) ambiguous. However, that is for you to decide on.

Basically, make a list of all chords (stick to triads) that feature that one pitch. Then, attempt to use them in a creatively manner to harmonize the stagnant melody.

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Tip #238 – Sliding Into Home Base

Just like a baseball player sliding into home base is unnecessary in compared to just running home – so can sliding into certain “home” notes of a chord. Yes, this extra accented passing tone is note needed, but it can give some cool flavor as well as style to your music.

As you are playing a chord progression, try using these accented passing tones in relationship to the chord:

  • Seventh goes to the root
  • Second goes to the third
  • Sixth goes to the fifth

…and with sliding motion if your instrument allows you to!

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Tip #151 – Using Fourth Structures in Harmonization

Continuing with a topic discussed the other day, we are going to take a look at how we can harmonize a melody using these fourth structures.

First, start off with a melody:

Then, add the diatonic fourth below the melody (this can either be a P4 or a tritone):

Now, we are going to do a closed fourth voicing, which means that we will add a third below the melody note. However, for the harmony that has a tritone, we are going to add a third ABOVE the bottom note:

If we instead wanted to do open fourths, we would need to stack two intervals of a fourth on top of each other. So, that simply means adding another fourth below the fourth from the previous example:

But, notice how the one with X’s have a tritone in them. Technically, that does not exactly fit the definition of an open fourth structure. To edit this, we use chromatics to adjust the harmonic intervals:

And there you go!

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Tip #145 – The Seesaw of Acoustic Balance in Counterpoint

If you know what a seesaw is – it is an outdoor playground ride where the changes of force on either side cause the ends to go up in down. When both sides are even, the seesaw is balanced.

You might experience a seesaw feeling when you are writing counterpoint:

  • On one hand, the two melodic lines must be heard; but one cannot completely overpower or be completely in balance in volume.
  • On one hand, the two melodic lines cannot be too similar in timbre where they blend in a mess; but they cannot be too distinctive where they don’t blend.
  • On one hand, the two different melodic lines music be unique; but they still must work together as one whole.

My advice to you the reader is:

  • Make one melodic line slightly louder than the other
  • Choose instruments carefully, as to which best pair for the greater effect of the music
  • And keep in mind intervals, rhythm, and motivic usage when crafting contrapuntal lines.

This could help create a balance.

Of course, this is just my advice – you are the composer, so do whatever you feel is right!

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Tip #142 – Mindfulness of Harmonic Intervals in Two-Part Density

Two-Part Density, as we have talked about before, is two different melodic lines (either in counterpoint or in compliment to each other) played together at the same time.

For those that are nitpicky about everything that they write, here is a way to look at your two-part density in mindful reflection of what note to choose.

First, are the two notes chord-tones to the harmony (either the root, third, fifth, or seventh) or tension tones? Mixture of both?

Second, do the harmonic intervals between the two melodic lines give the desired effect?:

  • Unions – overlapping consonant blend
  • Seconds – dissonant
  • Thirds – consonant, especially if it is a chord-tone
  • Perfect Fourth – hollow, and slightly dissonant
  • Perfect Fifth – hollow, consonant
  • Tritone – very dissonant
  • Sixths – consonant, especially if it is a chord-tone
  • Sevenths – dissonant, but can work well if it is a chord tone

Being conscious of these two ideas of chord-tones and interval effect can help strengthen your two-part density writing.

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