How To Compose A Good Melody

In a recent Composition Corner post, I talked about 5 problems that students often have when writing melodies or writing pieces.  Today, I would like to start to give you some general components how to compose a good melody so that you can be better equipped to evaluate the melodies of your students.  Keep in mind that there are many exceptions to these guidelines, so they should not be viewed as “rules.”  There are great reasons for not using these guidelines such as atonal melodies, minimalistic music, and more.  If students are interested in creating these kinds of music, that should certainly be explored.  But, it is my opinion that all composition students or students dabbling in composition should know how compose a good melody, preferably before exploring other types of melodies.

A good melody works because it connects with people.  The guidelines I will be presenting in the next few weeks will describe the characteristics of a good melody. In addition, a teacher or student who asks “Why does this connect?  Why does this work?” will come away with the best understanding of how to create a good melody, though asking these questions is not necessary to following these guidelines. Because of this, I’m going to suggest some reasons why these these work and how they connect with people.

The first element of a good melody is contour.

1. In order to compose a good melody it should have a good contour.

  • A good melody will have only 1 apex.  This is the most important part of the phrase, so it should be set apart in its singularity.
  • Ways to highlight your apex might be to set it off by a leap or placing it in an unexpected place (not beat 1 or 3 of a measure).Some possible contours include:
  • An arch.  Imagine an arch where the highest point is slightly to the right.
    A great place to put your apex is about 2/3 of the way into the melody as in the Traumerei of Schumann:

    Compose a good melody |

  • An inverted arch.  Imagine an upside down march.  Sometimes it is effective to make your “apex” the lowest note of the melody.  Beethoven does this brilliantly in Ode to Joy.
    Compose a good melody |
  • A ramp.  The apex of your melody will be at the beginning or the end in this contour.  Somewhere Over the Rainbow is an excellent example of this contour.  The composer’s highest note is at the beginning of the melody and the rest of the melody is spent descending to the low tonic.
    Compose a good melody |


Why does a melody need to have a good contour?

A good contour directs the listener’s ear into the tension, resolution, and most important points in a smooth and digestible way.

What would you say?

Take a look at this actual student melody and try your hand at evaluating its contour.  If you think it is necessary, make a few suggestions to this student to improve their melody.

Compose a good melody |

Read More: