1) Play or sing the melody, accompanied by only the bass notes (no chords).
You can do this on the piano – play the melody with the right hand and the bass notes with the left. Or you can just sing the melody while playing the bass notes on any instrument that has some low tones.
The important thing is to listen as closely as you can to how the melody interacts with the bass notes – particularly at each point where the bass changes.
Are there places where the melody loses its drama, its tension (which I think most good melodies have)? This can be because you have the same note in the melody and the bass at the same moment. I’m not saying never do this, but it can bring a melody to a premature place of rest, rather than feeling like there’s more story to tell.
It’s also interesting and fun to experiment with different melody notes against the bass (and vice versa), to see if this gives the melody a stronger character. Sometimes it does.
Going through this ‘two note’ exercise, if you want to call it that, really exposes the strengths and weaknesses of the melody and the harmony (the chord is implied by the bass notes). I find it extremely useful.
2) Try inverting some phrases of the melody lower or higher.
I’ve often found that the shape and movement of my melody is fine. I’m just not always placing it in the most effective place on the scale.
To give a simple example, let’s say that your melody notes are C D E D C over a ‘C’ major chord. In a C major scale, that would be scale notes 1 2 3 2 1 (Do Re Mi Re Do).
If you moved the melody up to start on the 3rd note of the scale, the notes would be E F G F E (3 4 5 4 3… aka Mi Fa Sol Mi Sol). The melody would have the same motion and rhythm as the one above, but I’ll bet that in most cases it would sound better – because, as mentioned above, the melody wouldn’t be coming to rest on the same note as the bass (C).
Or you could move it up one more inversion, where things would really get interesting. That would start on the 5th note of the scale and go G A B A G (5 6 7 6 5)… or G A Bb A G (5 6 b7 6 5), depending on whether you like the major 7th or the dominant 7th sound – and you may not like either!
This approach can also be useful when a song’s range gets too wide. Let’s say the high note is too high, or the lowest is too low, or both. I can bring a phrase of the melody down or up one inversion, to make the overall range more singable.
Neither of these techniques always, or even usually, improve a song. But sometimes they do. And a handful of small improvements can really make the difference between something average and something special.
Do you have any approaches you use to work specifically on your melody?
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