Some Melody-writing Hints

So you know a little about music by now. You know about key signatures, maybe about scales too. But every time you try to write a melody, it ends up sounding random and confused. Well, here are some guidelines that you can learn to help make your melodies sounds less random.

NOTE: Whenever I use a word like "better" or "best," this means "HWC Cori's opinion is that this is better/best." if you disagree, that's fine. :) However, these the guidelines have been developed over the centuries, and even if you don't use them you should at least know them.

First, background: In a basic one-octave scale, there are 8 notes. If you take, for example, C major, these are the notes:

(=)C D E F G A B (/)C

Now, each of the notes is given a number, so you can tell people which note you're referring to. Roman numerals are used. In this case: (don't mind the underscores, I just used them to make the letter names line up with the numbers properly)

C D_ E__ F_ G A_ B(+)C

C is 1, D is 2, etc. Since the C note is used twice, it can be considered either 1 or 8.

If you were in a different key, say, F major, the scale would go like this:

F G_ A__ B.(+)C D_ E__ F

In this key, F is 1, G is 2, and so on. In this scale, F can be considered both 1 or 8.

Now, with that background, here are some basic rules...

1) Most melodies start on either I/VIII or V.

There are exceptions to this rule, but don't worry too much about that now.

1b) All melodies end on I/VIII

There are exceptions to this rule, but I've liked very, *very* few that I've heard. Ending on I gives a sense of finality, which is usually what you want at the end of a piece.

2) Stepwise motion is preferred.

What that means is that moving by an interval of 1 note (motion like this called "moving by step" or "stepwise motion") is considered to be better, in most circumstances, than leap-wise motion (moving by an interval of more than 1 note).

For example, doing a melody that goes like (I-II-III-II-III-IV-V) is better than something like (I-VI-II-V-III-VI-VIII).

Using stepwise motion will reduce the random-sounding nature of your melodies.

3) Stepwise motion gets boring fast!

Of course, if composers used nothing but stepwise motion, songs would get old VERY quickly. So use leaps judiciously, but not too frequently. For example, something like (I-II-III-II-V-IV-V) is better than (I-II-III-V-II-IV-V)

4) Run away from leaps!

Okay, I tried to make the title more interesting than the rule actually is. Basically, if you are going to make a leap, try to have stepwise motion in the *opposite* direction either before or after the leap. On both sides is even better.

For example, if you look at (I-II-III-II-V-IV-V), I prepare for the II-V leap by starting on III, using stepwise motion down to II, leaping up to V, and finally stepping down to IV.

You don't need to do this for every leap you make, but it makes the larger leaps sound better. But what is a large leap?

5) 'Allowed' leaps

I think I should stop here to point out that the word "rule" should mean, in this context, *this and only this*: A guideline, generally agreed upon by musicians/composers since the 1800s, about how to make decent-sounding music.

Similarly, in this context, "Allowed leap" means this: A leap that will (usually) not sound out of place in most songs.

That aside, there are two types of leaps: small and large.

Small leaps are leaps of 2 (or sometimes 3) notes. For instance, I-III, IV-VI, V-III. You don't really need to do prepare (see rule 4) for small leaps if you don't have to, but it usually sounds good.

Large leaps are leaps of 4 or more notes. For example, I-V, IV-VIII, I-VIII, VI-I. You should try to prepare for large leaps, at least on one side. It helps quite a bit.

The tricky part is that some large leaps sound good, while others sound abysmal. Avoid leaping from IV-VII or the reverse. That interval is called a 'tritone' (a.k.a. augmented 4th, diminished 5th, and The Devil's Chord). It sounds icky. Bad bad bad. It becomes absolutely great when used properly, but you'll want to keep it out of your melodies when you're starting. If you get a hankering to write blues, we'll talk. ;)

Anyway... leaps of 4 notes (I-V) are generally good. Leaps of 5 notes (II-VII) are pretty good too, but some are better than others. Leaps of 6 notes (I-VII) are Not Allowed. That is, they sound bad. Try it sometime. If you decide you like it actually, write a song using them. I tried that once. :)

Leaps of 7 notes (I-VIII) are a special case. Jumping an octave (I-VIII, etc.) sounds pretty good, but you almost *have* to prepare for such a large leap in your melody.

Anyone reading this who is a real musician is probably yelling at me now. Musicians have their own way of counting the distance between notes (the "interval") that I'll talk about now. The interval between a note and itself is a first, 1st, or unison. The interval between a note and its neighbor (for instance, C to D) is a second. The interval between a note and a note not quite next to it (for instance, C to E) is a third. Do you understand the pattern now? So, the interval between a note and itself an octave above (for instance, =C to /C) is an 8th. Of course, musician counting is kind of strange, because 5 + 4 = 8! You see, a fifth above =C is =G, and a fourth above =G is /C.

So, anyway, if you're used to musician counting, what I've said in the last few paragraphs is:
- Seconds are the most common interval since they're stepwise motion
- Thirds and Fourths are 'small' leaps, and are used commonly. Anything above a fourth is a 'large' leap.
- Fifths and Sixths are also used, but fifths are more common than sixths
- Sevenths are quite uncommon, and you should only use them if you know what you're doing.
- Octaves can sound good, but you absolutely must preceed and follow them with stepwise motion in the opposite direction from the leap.
- Anything larger than an octave is tricky. Use at your own risk. :P

6) Double jumps

Whew, all that and we're only up to number 6?

Basically, if you're going to do two leaps in a row, there are a few rules.

If you're leaping two times in the same direction: (i.e. I-V-VIII):

The lower leap has to be bigger than the upper one, otherwise your piece will become unbalanced, tip over, and you'll have to pick up the pieces. Get it? Pick up the piece-es? ha ha ha I'm so funny. [sigh] Sorry, it's late. :/ But it *is* true that making the lower leap larger will sound better, in most cases. (the main exception is if the notes create a broken first-inversion triad... if you don't understand that, don't worry about it too much. Or ask me about it.)

Do the contrary-stepwise-motion thing (rule 4) on BOTH ends of the double-leap. Again, it helps a lot.

If you're leaping in two different directions: (i.e. III-I-V)

The contrary-stepwise-motion thing isn't quite as necessary, but it still sounds good.

And no matter which one you use, try not to use any leaps larger than 4. When I try, it feels like I've stuck a random note in the middle of my melody.

7) Important Notes

This one assumes a knowledge of chord progressions, so if you don't know about those this won't make terribly much sense.

Basically, whenever you leap to or from a note, you're giving that note emphasis and making it important in the melody. A way to give your piece cohesion is to make the important melodic notes the same as the important harmonic notes. What that means is that your melodic leaps should begin or end (or both!) on notes of the current chord of the chord progression.

For example: If you're in D major and the current chord in the progression is V, you should make any leaps in this part of the melody begin or end on the notes A, C#, or E; say [\gb=d]8Bag[\gb=d]8/D8

When you have a leap just when the chord progression is changing from one chord to another, you should start the leap on a note from the first chord, and end on a note from the second chord.

For instance; If you're in A minor and the chord progression is switching from iv to V, you should start the leap on either D, F, or A and end on either E, G#, or B; say =ab+cdE[\dfa]/F[\eg#b]8=B8

Hmm. Hopefully that made at least a little bit of sense. :) If you're confused or have questions or things, you can talk to me in Clan Lord (or send an e-mail to, and I'll try to answer any questions you have.

Go back to my music.