Many great artists, songwriters, and producers are guided by their ears with years of
experience, creating music that excites them in their own unique style. Knowledge of music theory concepts helps many of them reach this point and can be a crucial foundation to build from when crafting an artistic identity.
The following information is meant to be a guide for anyone looking to develop their
understanding of melodies in the world of beat-making, with basic visual examples from a digital audio workstation (DAW) for reference.
What is a Melody?
A melody is “a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying.” The melody of a song is the tune that presides over the rest of the musical arrangement; the fluctuation of pitches typically carried by a vocal or primary instrument which is more likely to be stuck in your head than anything else in the song.
Catchy melodies are a crucial factor for reaching and retaining listeners who will keep coming back to your song time and time again after hearing it once before. For beat-making in particular, the primary melody of the vocal will often be absent until later in the production process, but secondary instrumental melodies are important for laying down the groundwork for the vocal that will come later.
In Part 2, we learned that intervals are the distances between notes. Knowing recognizable intervals and hearing how they work in melodies will be important in this context. One of a producer’s greatest potential strengths is the ability to create a melody where notes travel in ways that are unique and surprising, but don’t feel unfamiliar or unsatisfying.
Chord tones are notes that appear both in the melody and the chord happening underneath the melody. If we assume the chords occurring in the music are triads, then the chord tones would be the root, third, and fifth of that triad.
These qualities of the tonic chord, especially the root and fifth, are often some of the most prominent notes found in a melody. The chord tones of the dominant chord (V or v) are also prominent and are often used as passing tones or neighbor tones throughout melodies (more on this later).
Using chord tones frequently in a melody helps to emphasize the qualities of the harmonic content taking place beneath, though using them exclusively can make a melody sound robotic or uninteresting. This is where passing tones and neighbor tones become useful.
Generally speaking, a passing tone occurs between two chord tones, acting as a stepping stone to get from one chord tone to another. This creates a more pleasant and melodic sound as opposed to jumping between chord tones sporadically at all times.
Like passing tones, neighbor tones typically occur between chord tones, but usually do so between two instances of the same chord tone. For example, if a melody is centered around the tonic note (the first degree of the scale), a neighbor tone known as the supertonic (the second degree of the scale) may be placed in between two instances of the tonic, creating a fluctuating motion in the melody.
Pentatonic scales are scales that use five notes per octave. Pentatonic scales are often the backbones of melodies, providing solid places for the tune to land from which it can further explore.
The major pentatonic scale uses the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth degrees of the scale only. For example, in C Major, the pentatonic scale would include C, D, E, G, and A. Conversely, the minor pentatonic scale uses the first, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh. In C Minor, the pentatonic scale would include C, Eb, F, G, and Bb.
Using the notes of the pentatonic scale as chord tones in the melody helps to establish a strong sense of harmony while keeping the music moving where it is supposed to go. Chord tones are not always necessary, however. For example, if we are in F Lydian with a parent scale of C Major, and we start with an F Major chord, the only chord tones present in the pentatonic scale would be C and A. Still, the notes E and G would work nicely in the melody over this chord, even though they are not chord tones for F Major, which is demonstrated by the upcoming example.
In beat-making, because the primary melody will be assigned to the vocalist, melodies within the instrumental generally act more as decoration to the percussive and harmonic elements.
The sample melody from this explanation will appear alongside the chord progression found in the previous section on harmony, which can be found by clicking here.
This melody follows the C Major pentatonic scale exclusively. Chord tones are circled in red, with chord tones appearing during each chord throughout the melody.
For a melody like this, it is common for the chord progression to start on the IV chord. As mentioned earlier, the chord tones of the tonic chord (in this case, C Major) are often found throughout the melody regardless of whether or not those notes are chord tones for the other chords being played. This is especially evident in the first measure with the F Major chord, where the melody outlines a C Major triad.
Additionally, the melody begins with an interval of a perfect fifth, which is an interval with a very strong melodic quality. The subsequent interval is a minor third - in much of recent popular music, going down from the higher note of a minor third to the lower note, or back and forth between the two, is very common. The interval which lands on the final chord of the progression (G Major) is a major 9th, a leap greater than an octave, which can make for a very exciting movement if the melody has only steadily traveled short distances up and down.
In the above graphic, some of the neighbor tones and passing tones of the melody are circled in blue and green, respectively. This demonstrates how melodic lines make use of notes outside of chord tones to drive the tune from one point to another.
Another important thing to point out with this melody is the rhythm, which is notated in the above graphic. Though the movement in pitches change, the same rhythm is repeated for the first three measures with a variation on the fourth. Having a melody with a consistent rhythm makes it both memorable and easy to follow along while listening.
Using this sample melody with the rest of the examples provided in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, try experimenting with note placement, rhythm, or making an interesting new melody from scratch as a way to begin developing your own melodic voice on your beat-making journey.
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