There are lots of ways to approach this process, probably as many as there are musicians. It is up to you to find out what suits better to you, considering your working process, the way you think and how you hear music in your head. That said, I will be making some suggestions that you can consider in case you feel stuck in the process of making a melody. Here is my suggestion list:
1. Probably, one of the most immediate ways of getting your feet wet, and actually compose a melody, is through improvisation. Simply hum, whistle or sing it, even if your words or sounds don’t make sense. Once recorded you can use that as reference and start polishing it.
2. If you already have lyrics, you can use the implied rhythm of the words to establish the melodic rhythm
3. Considering the above, if you pay attention to the way we actually talk in different emotional contexts – i.e. higher pitch when agitated and lower when more calm; you can let this define the melodic arch and register of the pitches. In other words, when you want the pitches in the melody to go up or down, and in what register you should be working your melody – also see “motherese“.
As a side note; in a previous post, I wrote about a vocal style in practice during the 18th and 19th century – Bel Canto; and one of its characteristics was the matching of the vocal register and tonal quality of the voice to the emotional content of the words.
4. In case you have a chord progression, use the chord tones as guides, or even non-chord tones – specially on strong beats; to choose the notes from the melody.
5. Use contrasts in your melodic writing and go from using predominantly leaps or steps in different sections of the melodic phrase.
6. This is a continuation of the previous suggestion but on a different scale. Try to consider the big picture and figure out what kind of contrast there will be between the melody you have in the verses (i.e.), and the melody from the chorus (see macroform). For instance, low VS mid or high register; more VS less rhythmic movement; steps VS leaps; low VS high intensity; chord tones VS non-chord tones; etc. The keyword here is contrasts.
7. Once you establish a melodic idea or even a small fragment, find ways to develop this motif by repeating small sections with variations – see microform. The development of a melodic fragment should be a mix of the original fragment and its variations. You can transpose, invert, retrograde, permutate the rhythm and/or pitches, etc. You can do all kinds of transformations to your melodic idea and eventually these will suggest other ideas that you can make use of.
8. If all else fails, use an existing melody as reference and pay attention to its main elements; the melodic arch or how it rises and falls, the rhythmic motif; the type of movement (steps or leaps); repeating elements, etc. After this brief analysis, start making your own variations to this melody while using these elements, or start a new one based on the reference.
As I said in the beginning, these are only suggestions that you can keep in mind when composing melodies. However, I strongly encourage you to experiment with these as a way of finding a good workflow or process for the way that you come up with your melodies.
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