Melodies – they’re one of the key features of almost all music. Usually they’re the most distinctive and memorable part of a track, even if the melody is only a couple of seconds long. Even with today’s dance music – heavily rhythmic, and far less dependent on melody than most music of the last few centuries – a simple melodic motif can make all the difference between a DJ tool and club anthem. And as for the big chart hits; you only need to take a look at Gotye and his nursery rhymes to see how a simple melody can take your track from demo to million-seller. But decent melodies can be the hardest thing to write – many people can’t do it at all. So how can you get started? Here are some tips to help you get a handle on this tricky area of music writing…
The first step is to figure out what key your track is in. You can probably work this out by following the bassline; if it’s a one-noter then that note is probably the root of the scale, and if not then there will probably be one particular note that sounds more ‘settled’ than the others. This will be the root of the scale.
Once you know what the key is, you can see which notes fit into that scale. These notes aren’t the only ones you’re ‘allowed’ of course – there are no rules as such – but they’ll be the ones that fit most simply. So start working with these.
The next thing to remember is to keep it simple. Most of the best melodies usually are. Take Joker’s classic track dubstep ‘Digidesign’ for instance. This instantly recognisable riff uses only the first 5 notes of the scale. It starts and ends on the root note, and for the most part moves fairly simply up and down the scale without too many big jumps. It’s also rhythmically very static – simple quavers are the order of the day. Another, much more famous, melody uses the same trick. OK, it’s not dance music, but check out Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’ on Youtube. This too uses the first 5 notes of the scale, on straight quavers, just rolling up and down the scale. It starts on the third note of the scale though, which makes quite a difference to the feel (it’s also in a major key, unlike most dance music).
So start very simple – loop up a 4 bar section of your beat, and starting somewhere near the root note of the scale, try out a couple of simple movements. They don’t have to jump around all over the keyboard, as the two examples above show. If you find something that sounds reasonable, then get it programmed in, and you can now start to tweak it. If, for example, your melody starts on beat one of the bar, try moving the whole thing earlier or later by a beat or two (or half a beat). A slightly stodgy pattern can be made much more lively simply by moving things away from the obvious cue points.
Similarly, you can rotate the order of the notes to give the line a different feel. Try taking the first note or two, and moving them to the end of the sequence, for example. Making it so that the melody no longer starts on the root of the scale can give the impression that you’re jumping straight into a melody that was already on the move. Ending the melody away from the root, on the other hand, will leave the listening hanging, anticipating the line to swing back round for another pass.
Still not getting any decent ideas? Try firing up an arpeggiator. Normally, these things can be the quickest way to trance purgatory, but with a little finesse can be a good starting point for a new melody. Set the note length to something like 8th notes, play a couple of chords in the key of your track, and see what comes out. Jam around with the different arpeggiator patterns to see what happens, and then get some MIDI data down and start tweaking again. You can remove some of the arpeggiator feel by deleting certain notes, so it’s not just running through a regular pattern. You could also try lengthening one note and then shortening the next, to give a little rhythmic variation. It doesn’t take a lot of alterations to completely change the feel of the melody line.
If all else fails, you can always take the MIDI data from your drum channel and put it on a synth line. It won’t make the most interesting pattern, but it could be random enough that it sparks a couple of ideas to work with!
The crucial thing, however, is just to practise. Get used to jamming ideas on your keyboard, get to grips with basic music theory, make sure you can play a chord or two. Eventually you’ll find that things come more easily, just as with every other aspect of music production. Short cuts can sometimes help, but they’re no substitute for hard work!
So whatever you do, don’t give up. It sometimes just takes a 3-note bleepy riff to make a dull tune impossibly catchy, and that can make all the difference when it comes to DJ’s picking it up and clubbers remembering it after they get home on Friday night. Hopefully these tips will give you some ideas on how to get started – so grab that MIDI controller and start bashing those keys. You won’t become Beethoven overnight, but you might get nearer to writing that essential club banger…
Categories: Song Writing Techniques