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What makes a good melody?


Jazzwee

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Lately I've found two groups of people. Those who are adamant that they know what the elements of a good melody are. And those who have searched far and wide and realized that it's not that obvious.

 

For those of us in improvisory genres, we are tasked with coming up with something melodic when we're blowing.

 

One of teachers, who is really good at being melodic in his solos just said, "you know it when you hear it".

 

So what's your take?

 

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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I'm no composer, but much of my efforts are trial & error (mostly error). The ones that stick in my head after I've left the keyboard are the keepers. Many times the differences between something memorable and blah are small. I am trying at the moment not to play too many notes and play more intervals. When improvising I see a lot of people, myself included tend to go up and down the scale linearly with a few chord shells added for spice. The more melodic elements to me seem to be songs that jump intervals and always revolve around a central theme of 3-4 notes. Finding memorable phrases interesting enough to build a complete song out of is quite challenging.

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There is no theory of melody, only harmony. I doubt one could ever formulate a meaningful theory of melody.

 

The theory on Melody (a girl in my high school class) is that she was perhaps a little loose due to not having a father figure at home. That was MY theory anyway.

Steve (Stevie Ray)

"Do the chickens have large talons?"

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Predictable enough to be satisfying; unpredictable enough to be intriguing.

 

And rhythm is as important as pitch; without rhythm "Joy to the World" goes from being one of the most recognized and appreciated Christmas melodies in history to being a boring descending major scale.

 

Larry.

 

 

 

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The reason I asked this was that someone was chatting with me and was telling me that "I wasn't following the proper rules for making melodies". And then he proceeded to list like 5 rules to follow.

 

Basically after re-interpreting the rules, it became clear that it was based on ending or starting on chord tones on downbeats.

 

I'm tempted to post what he said but maybe I'll have to paraphrase it.

 

I was thinking that according to his rules, Miles Davis might fail.

 

However, although I think it is absurd to set limits on what a good melody could possibly be, I could make an observation that many good melodies state the harmony clearly. Though this finding is apparent to me (from transcribing), it is clearly not all-encompassing.

 

 

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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So what do you think of this?

 

1: Start on 1, 3 or 5 of the chord (keeping in mind you can start with an suspension or a semitone below, or even a note away within the scale as long as the downbeats are somewhat on 1 3 or 5.

2: End on 1, 3 or 5 of target chord

3: To get from the first note of a chord to the first note of the next chord you have only three ways of moving-- repeated notes, stepwise within the scale, and leaps.

4: The only way to leap is from odd to odd (1 to 3, 1 to 5 )or even to even. Leaps of a 7th (1 to 7 2 to 8 etc) require addition in that they always need to resolve whereas all the others are fine as they are.

5: If you leap from odd to even, or vise versa, the next note must follow the rules again.

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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Well, if someone stuck a gun to my head and asked to me state some guide, I might say it should have the elements of tension and release. Now I can think of many ways to do that but I don't think I can define it in some limited way.

 

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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I also think that most jazz solos, my own included, don't really improve on the melodies of the G.A.S. tunes they're based on :)

 

Sometimes when I'm playing I'll see my fingers moving and realize that I'm not being intentional, so I'll slow way down and either try to create a motif or go back to a the melody for a bit.

 

I hope that didn't derail the thread from your original question -- it's an important one, no doubt about it.

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The more melodic elements to me seem to be songs that jump intervals and always revolve around a central theme of 3-4 notes. Finding memorable phrases interesting enough to build a complete song out of is quite challenging.

 

Well that's a specific at least.

 

But I'd like to focus on that too. There's obviously a tension/release side to intervals and too much leaps can also detract from the melody. I say this because sometimes I over-leap.

 

Also, too many notes seem less melodic. Don't you agree that some repetition seems to work better?

 

Maybe the audience has to remember it before it sticks.

 

To me Keith Jarrett playing 16th notes in a blur cannot possibly be thought of as melodic only because the audience can't absorb it. I'd probably think of it as congealing into one harmonic blob.

 

(However, amazingly enough, when slowed down, what he plays is actually quite melodic, especially if taken in small portions).

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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In a real hurry:

There are some principles (not "rules") that you can take into account in order to write a well-balanced melody... but they not give you ant guarantee to write a "good", memorable, effective melody. Part of the magic of a good melody is balance, and part is surprise. In my experience, a good melody, as a good composition, lives of a difficult equilibrium between the expected and unexpected.

 

I's absolutely not true that a good melody has to be diatonic, or even pentatonic. Many popular songs (a minority perhaps, but they're there) have highly chromatic or modulating sections. From the top of my head, "Night and Day", "Have You Met Miss Jones", Carmen's "Habanera". etc.

 

More later

 

 

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I also think that most jazz solos, my own included, don't really improve on the melodies of the G.A.S. tunes they're based on :)

 

Sometimes when I'm playing I'll see my fingers moving and realize that I'm not being intentional, so I'll slow way down and either try to create a motif or go back to a the melody for a bit.

 

I hope that didn't derail the thread from your original question -- it's an important one, no doubt about it.

 

Thanks for being thoughtful in your response. Creating a motif implies "repetition" right? Going back the original melody is also repetition although as a formula, it already worked before.

 

Which raises the point, could any phrase, when repeated and emphasized turn melodic in the listener's ear? I think this could be true too.

 

I've heard Herbie and Wayne Shorter in a concert just take motifs and make melodies out of it. May not be memorable if heard independently. But the memory of the motif makes them stand out.

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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In my experience, a good melody, as a good composition, lives of a difficult equilibrium between the expected and unexpected.

 

 

Perhaps we can delve into examples of expected-unexpected.

 

Diatonic = Expected?

Stepwise Movement = Expected?

 

Out of key = Unexpected?

Out of original rhythm = Unexpected?

Leaps out of pattern = Unexpected?

 

If the ear is made to absorb any pattern, even if unusual, it turns into something expected right? I'm thinking of Monk's melodies. Some have really weird intervals.

 

 

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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In Robert Jourdian's book "Music, the Brain and Ecstasy", he looks into the science of why music is pleasurable.

 

He came up with a few "rules" in the chapter on melody.

 

- Nearly all the notes come from the seven tone scale on which the melody is based. The five chromatic notes should be unaccented and unemphasized.

- Most of the notes should be adjacent. Jumps should be few and large jumps rare.

- Harmonic resolutions should occur at point of rhythmic stress.

- Rhythmic accentuations should highlight the melody's contour. Changes should generally fall at rhythmically important junctures.

- Should have one instance of its highest note and preferably also of its lowest.

-Jumps should always land on one of the seven scale tones and not on one of the five chromatic tones.

- Conversely, a melody should never leap from a chromatic tone.

 

Of course, as I am typing this, I can think of lots of exceptions in some really nice melodies. The aforementioned "Have You Met Miss Jones" starts with a largish leap for example. And the memorable "Well, You Needn't" breaks the chromatic rules in the first nine note phrase as well as having several large leaps.

 

Interesting thought, however and a really good book.

aka âmisterdregsâ

 

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misterdregs, that's sort of similar to the Hal Galper Forward Motion. Chord Tones on downbeats. Tension on upbeats, resolution/release on downbeats.

 

But I find most of these assume functional harmony, or at least that you're outlining the written harmony. Many improvisers like Chick Corea think outside the box and can outline an alternate harmony. And then if heard against the original chords, it sounds really different (because it will fail on many of the chromatic 'rules').

 

In the above Pilc video, Pilc was playing an E Scale melody over an F Blues. Was it 'Pleasurable'? Depends on who's hearing it I suppose. If he played an E in the LH, we'd probably hear it differently.

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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What Pilc said. "It's like when I'm talking, I'm starting a sentence already knowing what I'm going to say."

 

In other words, treat music as language. Think interesting thoughts, then say them. Don't get hung up in rules like "don't end a sentence with a preposition." Sometimes a preposition is exactly the word you want to end with.

 

Larry.

 

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Diatonic = Expected?

Stepwise Movement = Expected?

 

Out of key = Unexpected?

Out of original rhythm = Unexpected?

Leaps out of pattern = Unexpected?

Don't think so.

The point is to create a landscape, simple or complex, then developing it in interesting ways, or even negating it in part along the ways. It's like telling a story; you stay in the frame of the premises, but something unexpected happens.

 

A little brainstorming....

 

- If the main statement is VERY strong and original, it needs little development:

 

[video:youtube]

 

- For an example of an unexpected twist, the up-and-down chromatic scale which starts the last section of "Donna Lee" (after an unusual long pause) is rather striking.

 

- To restate that diatonism is not necessarily the sign of a memorable melody, just think of Cole Porter's "I Love You"... It starts with a descending major seventh, immediately switches from minor to major, then in the middle section it modulates to a remote key and back, both without preparation. *And* it's still an extremely 'hummable' melody.

 

- "One Note Samba" lives on contrast: One repeated note first (well, two, really), then it modulates everywhere with fast scales.

 

- "How Insensitive", built within the range of a fifth or little more, develops in long periods: Every phrase (paragraph) starts one degree lower than the previous one, until the low tonic is reached at the end.

 

I'm afraid we can only make examples, because a *lot* of strong melodies defy analysis. What makes great and memorable, for example, Beethoven's Ode to Joy, or "The Fool on the Hill", or the "Firebird" main theme? They don't show particularly original traits to the analysis. Most of Mozart's melodies are discorageously (is that a word?) simplistic.

But they are... beautiful. So it looks like we're in the field of art (pardon the dirty word), where no matter how many beans you count, there's an imponderable element which decides when a work of art reaches the listener in the right way, and when it doesn't.

 

What makes a 'good' painting? A good film? A great recording? The human spirit, and the talent and dedication of the artist to transmit it to the receiver.

 

 

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So it looks like we're in the field of art (pardon the dirty word),

 

Dave Horne isn't here to argue that :D

 

But that's a really nice explanation. The examples really make the point.

 

I wanted to focus on the issue of motifs though. I went to a concert where I saw Herbie and Wayne Shorter. They apparently came to the gig with no pre-arranged tunes. Just a bunch of motifs by Wayne which he did the night before.

 

The motifs themselves were too short to be called "melodies". But they were thematic and they kept referencing them ever so often, or in various keys.

 

For the purposes of jazz soloing, the question then comes, is this by itself "melodic"? If I hear the motif one time, I wouldn't necessarily recall it because as typical of Shorter, the intervals will be unusual.

 

But repeated thematically for 10 minutes, you're left remembering it hours later. Was I force fed into accepting it as "melodic"? I could play that same motif in my solo one time and I'm 100% certain it would be ignored.

 

 

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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This may even extend to famous melodies like Beethovens 5th as an example.

 

In the context of a jazz solo, playing that 6 note Beethoven phrase may not generate a response (try it uptempo :D )

 

But because we've come to accept those 2 phrases of 3 notes as a theme, now we consider it melodic.

 

Doesn't suggest that there's more at play here?

 

 

 

 

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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About Pilc... he's a nice guy, a piano virtuoso, he has interesting ideas and he's quite intelligent, but I can't listen to any one of his albums from beginning to end without getting a big headache. Here, I've said it.

 

 

 

 

That's funny. I liked the way he described the melodic process, but I'm pretty sure I don't want to listen to his stuff.

aka âmisterdregsâ

 

Nord Electro 5D 73

Yamaha P105

Kurzweil PC3LE7

Motion Sound KP200S

Schimmel 6-10LE

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Westone AM Pro 30 IEMs

Rolls PM55P

 

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I also think that most jazz solos, my own included, don't really improve on the melodies of the G.A.S. tunes they're based on :)

 

Sometimes when I'm playing I'll see my fingers moving and realize that I'm not being intentional, so I'll slow way down and either try to create a motif or go back to a the melody for a bit.

 

I hope that didn't derail the thread from your original question -- it's an important one, no doubt about it.

 

Thanks for being thoughtful in your response. Creating a motif implies "repetition" right? Going back the original melody is also repetition although as a formula, it already worked before.

 

Which raises the point, could any phrase, when repeated and emphasized turn melodic in the listener's ear? I think this could be true too.

 

I've heard Herbie and Wayne Shorter in a concert just take motifs and make melodies out of it. May not be memorable if heard independently. But the memory of the motif makes them stand out.

 

I'm trying :)

 

Repetition of a motif may or may not yield a melody. It's a bit of a mystery, isn't it?

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So much has been taught on melodic writing over the centuries. I recall my high school theory teacher in our freshman year giving us a handout listing at least 6 common principles of good melodic writing. We had a 4 year theory program, 5 days a week for an hour in our high school. By the time we graduated we had a collegiate knowledge of 4 part counterpoint and could compose with just pencil and paper without an instrument. Google the search terms: "stepwise , melodic writing" and you find all the same guidelines.

Harry Likas was the Technical Editor of Mark Levine's "The Jazz Theory Book" and also helped develop "The Jazz Piano Book."    Facebook Harry spends his time teaching jazz piano online and playing solo piano gigs.

 

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So much has been taught on melodic writing over the centuries. I recall my high school theory teacher in our freshman year giving us a handout listing at least 6 common principles of good melodic writing. We had a 4 year theory program, 5 days a week for an hour in our high school. By the time we graduated we had a collegiate knowledge of 4 part counterpoint and could compose with just pencil and paper without an instrument. Google the search terms: "stepwise , melodic writing" and you find all the same guidelines.

 

That's pretty impressive for a high school program.

aka âmisterdregsâ

 

Nord Electro 5D 73

Yamaha P105

Kurzweil PC3LE7

Motion Sound KP200S

Schimmel 6-10LE

QSC CP-12

Westone AM Pro 30 IEMs

Rolls PM55P

 

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