Compose Yourself: Melody Into Words, A Video Series


Videos by American Songwriter

A well-crafted melody is the soul of a hit song. But what do we mean by “well-crafted”? And what accounts for the haunting beauty of a memorable tune? Volumes have been written about harmony, rhythm, song form, lyrics, and the art of arranging, but when it comes to melody, theory sputters to a halt at the doorstep of a great mystery. Even after scholars have been pondering the problem of melody for hundreds of years, no one yet can explain the whys and wherefores of a song such as “In My Life” or “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and it still seems almost sacrilegious to even try.

When I started seeking advice on melody writing decades ago, I found the lack of answers as fascinating as the riddle itself. Back in the 1980s, for example, there was a computer scientist who made so bold as to predict that a program he was working on would soon churn out Mozart sonatas like popcorn. Ten years later, when Silicon Valley was making phenomenal strides in computing power, with one “revolution” succeeding the other every six months, I noticed that I was still waiting to hear the first computer-generated sonata. Now here we are, techno-savvy citizens of the global village of 2014, with iPads and apps galore, and I have yet to hear so much as a decent pop song from a nonhuman composer. (And by the way, where is my George Jetson private air car with the bubble top?)

A couple of years ago, when I started writing “Measure for Measure” for American Songwriter, I was as obsessed as ever with the problem of melody. Then something interesting happened: the column format forced me to consider just one element of meaningful melody at a time. For example, one column was about interval color. Another was about scale-tone mood. Another weighed the emotional value of phrase contour. Another considered melodic rhyme. Pretty soon, without even trying, the readers and I had a dictionary of melodic meaning in hand. The door to the mystery had been pried open just a crack. A map to the unknown country was forming.

The July issue begins a series of columns on “power tones,” my pet name for a class of emotionally evocative musical notes that theory dutifully disinfects with the clinical term “non-chord tones.” But something bigger happens with this issue, too. Finally our vocabulary of melodic memes has reached the fission point: it has grown large enough that we can actually begin translating melodies into plain English. In a sense, this validates your intuition and mine that the twists and turns of a well-wrought melody are anything but random and mysterious: they really mean something, and we can even make a good guess about what that something is.

The larger point is that lyrics and melody often collaborate, enhancing each other’s artistic value. In columns past, I have referred to this as “the DNA” of lyrics and melody, since it explains how a song springs to life, becomes a hit.

As a case study, the column offers an English translation of the first sixteen notes to “Angel Of The Morning,” by Chip Taylor. Translating melody into English is more than just an idle exercise—it can help all of us speak the language of melody better when we sit down to write a song. It can help us seek and find inspired notes.

Words alone, however, can never quite communicate the magic of this melody, so I have created an eight-video series to explain the translation to a guitar accompaniment. Links to the videos are posted along with the blog this month. As usual, the production values are nothing to boast about, but I think serious songwriters will find this series a mind-expanding treat, and even non-composers should find it entertaining.

Enjoy, and please don’t hesitate to email [email protected] if you have any questions.

“Melody Into Words” — Intro (Pt. 1/8)

Melody Into Words – Phrase Contour (Pt. 2/8)

Melody Into Words – Interval Color (Pt. 3/8)

“Melody Into Words” – Rainbow Colors and Scale Tone Moods (Pt. 4/8)

“Melody Into Words” – Angelic Harmony (Pt. 5/8)

“Melody Into Words” – Two Sources of Magic – Pt. 6/8

“Melody Into Words” – The Translation (Part 7 of 8)

“Melody Into Words” – Conclusion (Part 8 of 8)

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