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Adventures In Melody Making

The Skinny On Scales & Scale Degrees

A "Scale" is just a collection of Notes, and a "Scale Degree" is the order that those Notes are in. Scale Degrees are usually written as a number with a little hat over it, like this:

Each of the Scale Degrees has a name. The first Note is called the "Tonic" and all other Notes are understood relative to it.

Therefore, a Scale Degree also tells us the size of the Interval between each Note and the Tonic:

This is called a Major Scale because of the Major Intervals within it (i.e.: M3, M6, and M7). If our Tonic was the Note C, then this would be called a "C Major Scale". If only this Scale was used throughout a piece of music, then we would say that it is "in the Key of C Major". In this context, the word "Key" means essentially the same thing as "Tonic". [It is possible to switch between multiple Keys within the same piece of music. This is called a "Key Change" or "Modulation". We will cover that elsewhere.]

Like the Major Scales, there are also "Natural minor Scales" where some of the Major Intervals become minor ones instead, like this:

Notice that M3, M6, and M7 are now m3, m6, and m7. If a Major and Natural minor Scale share all of the same Notes but those Notes are in a different order, then they are Relative Keys. For example, the C Major Scale and the A minor Scale have all of the same Notes within them, but one starts on C and the other starts on A. Therefore, they are Relatives. If they had the same Tonic, but any of the other Notes were different, then they would be Parallel Keys. For example, the C Major Scale and the C minor Scale are Parallel Keys.

There are other types of Scales as well, but we will focus in on only these two types for now. The collection of all possible Major Scales and minor Scales is called The Tonal System. How can we use it?

Our Motivation For Movement

Scales can be likened to an artist's palette and a Melody is like a painting. In other words, if we select the Notes that we are going to use to write a Melody from a particular Scale, then the Interval relationships inside of that Scale can help us to plan out our Melody. Remember, Melodic Intervals occur whenever two Notes are played one after the other.

The quality of an Interval can create either a sense of push or pull. In the context of Melody, these are called Tone Tendencies, and are where some of the names of the Scale Degrees come from. For example, in a Major Scale, the 7th Scale Degree is called the "Leading Tone". It often sounds as if it wants to "lead" one back to the 1st Scale Degree or Tonic. This is because the Interval formed between the 1st and 7th Scale Degrees creates a kind of tension that is resolved whenever the former is played immediately after the latter. For this reason, the Tonic is sometimes referred to as "home". Any time that we take a journey, we usually come back home at the end of it.

In short, paying attention to the push and pull of the Intervals within the Scale helps us to control the motion of a musical piece.

Musical pieces which use the relationships within The Tonal System are called, perhaps not surprisingly, "Tonal". If none of these Scale patterns are used within a musical piece, then it is "Atonal".

[Atonal pieces usually follow a completely different set of principles, referred to as "12-Tone Serialism". Essentially, one makes Melodies by playing each of the twelve Notes without repeating. This is called a "Tone Row". We are not going to cover that process here. If you are interested, Vi Hart has a wildly hilarious video about it.]

Generally, "Tonality" is whether a piece is to be considered Tonal or Atonal.

The Lay of the Land

All Tonal Melodies create a sort of meandering path through the Notes of the Scale(s) that they are written with, and the quality of the Intervals between those Notes is part of what determines the nature of that journey.

Another factor is the size of the Intervals. A large Interval between one Note and the next could be like a lively leap upwards if it is Ascending, or a sudden fall downwards if it is Descending. Smaller Intervals between consecutive Notes may be less drastic in their motion, like a gentle bobbing up and down. Sometimes, all of these hills and valleys within the Melody are referred to as its "Contour". To put it simply, a "Leap" is anything larger than a "Step" (i.e.: a Half-Step or Whole-Step), and the "Contour" is the overall shape of the Melody that they make.

Other factors include the overall speed at which those Melody Notes are played, and the duration that each of them are held. For example, even if the Intervals between consecutive Notes are small, a difference in speed could mean a difference in how those Notes are interpreted. For example, do they represent slow and cautious steps or a fast and nervous jitter? Is it meant to convey lethargy or excitement? Etc.

All of these aspects of a Melody combine in interesting ways. Again, we see the potential of forming rich stories through music! This might sound a bit complicated, but it doesn't have to be. Let's try to make a simple Melody together...


Step 1: Pick a Scale (such as one of the Major Scales).

Step 2: Make a small, three-to-five Note pattern out of the Notes within the Scale. You can repeat Notes if you like.

The pattern that we end up with is called a Motif. It will be the basic building block that we will use to form everything else in our Melody. Look, you are already Composing! ☺

Step 3: Change that Motif up by switching out Notes with others from the same Scale. We can also vary how long each Note is held, and how fast or slow all of them are played. This is how we give it Rhythm, by changing the pattern of the Notes in time.

Please keep in mind that music is the interplay between sound and silence, so be sure to intersperse Rests among the Notes. To use an analogy: Unless we are trying to cram in as many words as possible, we usually pause to take breaths whenever we speak. We do the same thing in music. In the context of Melody, this is called "Phrasing".

As you do this, think about the message that you want to convey through the Melody.

With or without Lyrics, it is helpful to think of Melody as equivalent to a kind of "speech without words". Take a moment to notice the "intonation" (or rise and fall) of people's voices when they are having a conversation. The emotion often comes through clearly, even if we cannot hear the specific words that they are using.

Step 4: Now that we have a few variations upon our basic building block, we can chain them together to make longer "Phrases". [If we are thinking of it in terms of Sheet Music, then a Phrase would probably be somewhere around two-to-four Measures in length.]

Anytime that we take something that we have already Composed and rearrange it to give us something slightly different, it is called "Development". In this case, we have taken a smaller unit (a Motif) and made a larger one from it (a Phrase).

There are five techniques that are commonly used to Develop a Melody:

• "Retrograde" - Play the Notes backwards in order.

• "Inversion" - Switch the directions of Intervals between the Notes (i.e.: if they are Ascending, then make them Descending, and vice versa).

• "Retrograde-Inversion" - Do both of the above at the same time.

• "Augmentation" - Increase the duration of all of the Notes.

• "Diminution" - Decrease the duration of all of the Notes.

Generally, we are aiming to strike a balance between repeating an idea enough to be familiar, and transforming an idea enough to be interesting. While we might end up in a place that is different from where we started from, there is a coherence throughout.

You might notice that some Phrases sound "incomplete" when we end them on certain Notes of the Scale. The Tone Tendencies are making them sound as if they want to continue on. Something is unresolved. To use an analogy: It is like a question. A question invites a response, and so the conversation continues.

Likewise, other Phrases may sound "finished". They end on a Note that leads to a sense of resolution. The question has been answered.

In fact, these two types of Phrases are sometimes referred to as "Questions" and "Answers"!

The Note that will most likely give us that sense of resolution is the Tonic. Many musical pieces have a tendency to both begin and end on this Note after exploring a series of Phrases. We have come home once more...

We now have the basics of Melody writing! This understanding will act as a foundation for doing other fun things with Scales as we continue.

Thank you for reading. Happy trails! ♥