Teasing out a Melodic Line; Melodic Development; Music Composition

A phrase originally presented as a motif may b...

A phrase originally presented as a motif may become a figure which accompanies another melody, as in the second movement of Claude Debussy’s String Quartet (1893) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You,ve written the notation for the initial musical idea. Now, it appears as a small bit of music on a rather large piece of blank paper. First thing is don’t panic. There is no such thing as writer’s block…only a pause (however long or short) before the next instinct takes the piece forward.

If the seed idea has enough gravitas it will eventually draw you back even if ‘life get’s in the way.’ I’ve had seed-ideas for works wait as much as a year or two before I felt I could re-engage the sounds to draw the piece out. In such instances, I have had substantial time to reflect on the basic function of the piece. I will have considered it with fresh ears and being distanced from the work, can find aspects I want to cut and parts to retain or take further. Don’t pressure yourself into believing you must instantly produce every wonderous effect in a single sitting. Even if you are possessed of that kind of brilliance and mental agility, your best works deserve some reflection and considered editing over a period of time. Ideas will come to you in time. This is the beginning to find how to improve your music.

What I’ve outlined above is a well established process for writers. Written works also often benefit by the author standing well away from his/her own work and taking a look with a (potentially) impartial view. For most of us a particular work doesn’t leap into the mind, in its complete and final form, and write itself fully developed work from the first draft. Elements of the editing and production process can add efficacy to your composition development.  The elements I apply to the process may be listed as;

  • Initial Production; a short musical line which conveys sentiment, creative flow should be relatively unimpeded at this stage…let your imagination fly 
  • Annotation; (in short hand or as detailed as you please) making written notes concerning the meaning you want to convey, emotional direction of the piece, texture, performance notes, the beginnings of form over the distance of the work, tempo and style, instrumentation directions, etc…
  • Personal Distancemoving toward neutrality, ability to consider or anticipate criticism and address it. After the initial burst of creative flow add a bit of hard discipline. Having a Critical Eye, or in this case -Ear, means being able to identify what is right about your current project, and what is wrong or not functioning up to potential. A composer who is too much in love with his or her own work risks alienating others if there is no consideration for the audience. If you write challenging work try not to antagonise the listener by excluding harmony/melody/rhythm that the average listener can relate to; conversely, if your work is too soft and gentle try to inject a bit of challenge to add interest. 
  • Re-engagement; If you aren’t easily able to achieve personal distance, re-engagement entails putting yourself into the plot again. Renew the original vigour you showed in creating the first bit of melody…where does it go next? Do a little fact-finding on chord progressions. Is the melody a call and response? Or does the short musical line stand on its own. If you interact with your notes you are engaging your critical faculties yet remaining in close contact with the ideas.
  • Finishing Development; Give yourself a break from the sounds you’ve written/recorded. Go back another day to play it back to yourself. Sometimes analysis takes care of itself. You may have had an event (or slept on it overnight) which provided a solution to any problem area in that particular composition.
  • Post Production; Similar to the finishing stage, you may need to consider mixing or re-mixing. How strong should the midi-values be? Is the sound quality good? Am I at risk of over-working the piece and loosing its simplicity? What kind of feedback have I received? How strongly/weakly do people react or respond to the work? How the piece reflects in the ears of a listener is key to knowing when to release your work for public consumption. Time to let the project stand, as is. 

After applying these elements, you may call the work finished when you are (relatively) satisfied with the outcome. The ‘perfectionist’ as well as the more ‘undisciplined’ composer will benefit from this kind of interdisciplinary approach.The perfectionist has a hard time knowing when to allow the work to stand, as it is. And the undisciplined artist will have improved the work by applying something of a systematic approach. Works that are nicely organised improve the delivery of the given melody.

Often, the smallest idea is the catalyst for a bigger work. From that small catalyst the composer may tease out the melodic line to explore different modes of expression. Just as a single word does not yet form a sentence, it remains the foundation of sense. Word choice and register govern the delivery of content and meaning. Suffice to say the process a writer goes through should be just as systematic and clear for the composer of music.

Part of the process of editing and developing your piece, includes the purpose or intent behind the work. In reality, you may set out to create music to express a particular mood. But, the work may take on a life of its own in the ears of an audience. I can only say that sometimes you may set out to write a jolly tune only to hear feedback about how melancholy it sounds to a listener. In such instances I can highly recommend a thick, yet understanding, skin. You must be robust enough to withstand unexpected feedback or an utterly different response than expected. In any event, you must answer your own question honestly…ask yourself, ‘Why am I creating this piece?’ If you have a clear vision at the onset, your intent will be more accessible to the listener. Understanding what you want to accomplish with your musical idea is key to its development and efficacy.

Mood-2

Mood-2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are to avoid making the melody obtuse, hidden, or overlooked you must ‘play’ with the idea. This may take place in a variety of ways. Ask yourself several questions to begin knowing where to start with teasing out the melodic line.

Is the melody obvious/identifiable? Is the melody long enough? Should it include changes of mood, texture?Should the overall work segue into another/other song(s)? How much repetition of the theme is needed? If I change song or mood should I return to the theme, or remind the listener of it throughout? Should I change the original expression of the theme to use variation? How does my theme sound in its relative Major or Minor? Do I want to use homogenous sounds, or changing rhythm? Is my song to be articulated, or legato? Do I mostly travel up for lifting sounds in this piece or down for drops? Does the musical idea feel complete, full enough? Does my work tell a story?

These are only a few useful questions you may ask yourself as you consider what next to do with the simple melody. An examination of your purpose behind the work, application of the writer’s editing process, and knowledge of how you might include or exclude other modes of expression will help you to formulate an overall structure to enrich the (small) melodic line you began with.

I recommend creating a sheet, listing relevant criteria, to serve as a creative driver template. You can use the elements I’ve shared to start, or make one independently from my suggestions. Either way, you’ll find you can make your own check-list of helpful prompts so that you can guide yourself through the development of your musical works! Novelists create characters, with often rich and complex back-stories. Why should your composition be any different?

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