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How to Develop Your Musical Ideas

     Most likely, you don’t have any problems with coming up with a basic idea for a beat, melody or some chords. What may happen is that you might not know how to go from there and consequently turn those ideas into a full fledged song.

     What you need to know is that even the longest musical piece explores basically a few motives that are developed and “suffer” various kinds of transformations and variations. And what is a motive? Basically, it’s the smallest idea that can be recognizable from a piece of music.

     In this post, we are going to look at some of the ways you can develop these because, if you think of it, this is a great way of being musically consistent throughout your song, providing the listener with a sense of unity, since most of what is happening comes from one idea. And on top of that, you will not have to worry about creating new ideas for that music piece from scratch!


     Now that we know what a motive is – a small musical idea; we have to look at how we create our own motives. You can create these bits of ideas just by experimenting with some musical element or by picking something from a pre-existing material and explore it.

     For instance, you can find a specific melodic fragment in something you already created, or otherwise, and play around with it, like so:


I repeated the same interval relationship of the fragment I chose and moved it around, adapting the rest of the melodic contour to it

    There are no rules or limitations to the extent or amount of transformations that a motive may be subjected to. Although the example above is a melody, you can manipulate and transform any other musical element.

     Next, we will take a closer look at some ideas you can use to develop a motive. But before doing so, let me advice you to keep a record of your ideas and transformations, that you can go back to, so that you can choose and decide which ideas go where in your music composition.


     There are so many ways to develop musical materials and I can’t possibly cover all of them in this post. Instead, I’ll just try to open the first chapter of a musical exploration voyage that you should definitely embark on. That said, now we will be looking at some rhythmic, melodic and harmonic development strategies.


     Being the time element of music, of the three, rhythm is the most pervasive element since it is what gives movement, momentum or flow to either the melody or the harmony. With that in mind, the following techniques may be adapted to the melodic and harmonic elements.

     Consider a original rhythmic motive with colored groups of notes so you can keep a better track of the transformations that will follow:


     You can also repeat groups of notes and create a whole new rhythmic part focused on that group:


     Change the meter:


     And the most obvious, a variation if the initial fragment and using it to compose a rhythmic phrase:


Notice that the last variation is actually based on a rhythm I had previously presented. It is the same rhythm as the last bar of the repeated group of notes

     You can also consider changing the tempo, which will affect the groove or feel of the rhythmic phrase you are working on.


     Consider the initial melodic example from the beginning of the post, which is itself the product of a motive development. We will only be working with the first bar and go from there to compose a melodic phrase.

     The following example will present an inversion of the original intervals, meaning that instead of going down a third, we will go up, and so on. I am not respecting the interval quality so that we can stay in the same tonality. And finally we will reverse or retrograde the notes of the original melody:


In the drums, I used the example from the repeated rhythm note groups. Listen to it performed on the ride cymbal

     You can also move the melodic fragment around. This is not an actual transposition as we are not changing keys. In this case we will be move the melody one step down while maintaining the relative interval positions:


     Using the previous example, you can add embellishments to the main idea and create a greater sense of movement:


The notes in red are a map to the original melodic development


     Before we start, consider the melody that was developed in the beginning of the post harmonized with simple triads:


     Change the character of the harmony by using modal interchange, for instance. In this case we will also adapt the melody to the tonality, but the relative interval distances in the melody will remain the same. This is a reharmonization based on Gm, the third degree of Eb major – also check out some of the things you can do to make chord progressions sound more interesting:


     Changing the harmonic rhythm. In this case, having more chords:


     Introducing a modulation, in this case, in the middle of the phrase. This may change the initial mood of the melody. Here I go from the tonal center of C major, in the first two bars and the next two bars I make a direct modulation to the tonal center of Eb major:


     You can also do all this by using different chord voicings and chord formations like chords in fourths or seconds, using more chord extensions… each will provide a different feel and probably suggest other pathways that you may follow.


     Basically, it is the same approach, except for the fact that it’s longer. This means that you can break it down in sections and then explore those parts or fragments, using practically everything that has been mentioned here, and then some more!


     All considered, you can see that a small motive can go a long way. I could go on developing it but I think that you already realized the potential of actually developing your existing materials and build from them.

     If you try putting A and B together, you will get a musical result. But if you start changing some variables inside A or B, the end result with also change. Learning what those variables are is one of the reasons why it is important to know what you are doing and that comes from study and experience through actual experimentation.

   As you can see, a simple idea or motive is all you need to get you started on your musical projects. You can use all those transformations and variations to continue your initial idea without loosing objectivity and coherence. But most importantly, you will not have to deal with any creative blocks.

     Anyway, try it yourself and see where your ideas take you because many times one idea suggests the other, and then the next one, and so on. Now, it’s time to have fun!

     Happy composing!

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