How to develop a melody

Do you ever sit down to create a piece of music, only to find yourself staring at an empty session and not knowing how to start?

Building off of a solid melody would be a great way to fuel your creativity, but sometimes the desire to write something unique yet memorable can freeze us up. This blog post introduces a concrete method that you can use to craft a great melody. You’ll find that you may have used this technique intuitively before, without even realizing it – by consciously recognizing it as a tool, however, we become empowered to proactively overcome any creative block.

In celebration of Atlanta Trap week, we’ll be developing a trap melody as our example.

1. Starting with a versatile motif

If we want to write a memorable melody, it’s important to incorporate some degree of repetition so that an idea sticks inside the listener’s head. When every element of a melody has no relation to what came before it, the music becomes random and the listener will struggle to find something to latch on to. For this reason, a good way to start composing a melody is by coming up with a motif. In music, a motif refers to a recurring figure that serves as the foundation of a larger idea. Short and simple is the key – we’ll be elaborating on the motif to make the melody more intricate, so we want it to be a versatile building block.

If coming up with a motif in a totally empty session is difficult, laying down a basic backing track might be helpful. I’ve done so using a few Splice samples, and came up with a motif that feels like it has some potential using Xfer Record’s Serum. Let’s take a listen to what the track sounds like with the motif on loop:


As you can hear, the motif quickly gets repetitive if it isn’t varied whatsoever. However, it’s undeniably a good starting point – the motif effectively captures the overall mood of the music using just three notes (G, Ab, and F):

how-to-develop-a-melody-01

The Ab is what makes this motif tick – in the track’s key of G minor, we expect to hear an A natural as our second scale degree. Flattening the A natural to an Ab gives the motif a darker feel that goes perfectly with the mood of the track. If we wanted to get nerdy about it, we could say we’ve used mode mixture to borrow the flat second from the phrygian mode – check out this post if you want to learn more on mode mixture.

2. Applying rhythmic variation

Now that we have a motif, our next step is to change it up in its repetitions. We might be inclined to immediately start altering the pitches, but simply switching up the rhythm can be an easy and powerful way of creating interest. Let’s see if solely working with rhythm can produce an interesting result:


As we can see from the MIDI roll below, we’re still only using the pitches G, Ab, and F. Even the order of the pitches in the melody hasn’t changed. However, the music immediately becomes way more engaging just from the added layer of rhythmic variation.

how-to-develop-a-melody-02

3. Applying (some) melodic variation

Finally, let’s do what we’ve probably been itching to do – change up the pitches in the melody. It’s easy to get a little carried away here, so we have to be mindful of balancing a controlled amount of variation with an adherence to the motif’s essence. I’ve expanded the melody into eight bars by applying subtle changes to each repetition of the motif – a two-beat fill is added every four bars to break things up, and the melody briefly jumps up an octave towards the end for dramatic effect:

how-to-develop-a-melody-03

Let’s double the melody with a lower octave to thicken it up and take a listen to the final result:


The big picture

Is there a single formula for devising ‘the perfect melody?’ Do all ‘good melodies’ fit into the mold of rhythmic and melodic variation on a motif? The simple answer to these questions is no. The melody created here is nothing but an example, and I’m not claiming that it’s objectively perfect or even good – that’s for you to decide. However, what’s for certain is that iterating on a motif provides an actionable and effective framework for creating melodies that resonate with both the veteran musician and the average listener. After all, the technique of developing a motif can be heard all over works spanning Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to The Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” so there’s no reason you shouldn’t give it a try, too.

March 30, 2018

Harrison Shimazu Harrison Shimazu is a video game and film composer passionate about communicating narrative through music and sound design.