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Melody: Keep The Shape, Change The Inversion

Sometimes I get the shape of the melody right, but not the register.

Let’s say we’re in the key of ‘C’ and the first phrase of the melody starts on the root, goes up, and then back down – the notes being C D E G E G D C. Try singing those notes in that order a few times over a ‘C’ chord. (Just pick a simple rhythm; any will do.)

It’s a perfectly acceptable beginning for a melody; one that just came to my mind. But once I tried it I didn’t love that it began and ended on the root note. That feels too much like the melody’s story is over, resolved, when it’s just getting started.

So, assuming I like the contour of the melodic phrase, the first thing I’d try would be to raise the whole thing up a 3rd (starting on E instead of C), while keeping the same shape.

That could give me these notes – E F G C G C F E. Try singing that a few times over the ‘C’ chord, with the same shape and in more or less the same rhythm as above.

Then go back and sing the original.

One isn’t inherently better than the other, but the one that starts and ends on E is less resolved. Since it doesn’t end on the root it feels like the melody’s ‘story’ is still unfolding.

Of course you can do this same thing going up higher – start on the 5 of the scale (G), or the 7th (Bb or B), etc. Or you can go lower, beginning on the 5th (G) or the 6th (A) below the original C.

Another thing to do is play or sing the ‘starting on C version’ followed by the ‘E version’. Now you have a first melody phrase that is logically and musically developed in the second phrase.

I like to fool around with my melodies like this – in different inversions – as I develop a song. I’m often surprised by how much better the melody sounds a little higher or lower in the scale than where I originally thought of it. Often what’s most useful about the melodic phrase I start with is not so much the specific notes as the shape, the up-and-down flow. The beginning and ending notes can often change to the song’s benefit.

Another place where this tool comes in handy is when I find my melody having a range that’s too wide – it’s difficult to sing (without a redeeming factor to make the difficulty worthwhile). Sometimes I just write myself into a corner – for example, the Verse is singable but the Chorus goes too high, or the Chorus is fine but the Verse has notes that are too low to sing comfortably.

Often messing with the inversions of the phrases, as discussed above, can lead me to a solution that improves the song. And if a song isn’t singable, at least by someone, it’s not of much use to anyone!

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