147 WAYS TO WRITE A MELODY

I’m very excited about a musical experiment I’ve just conducted on my YouTube channel - I posted a half-finished melody and asked viewers to compose the rest of it however they saw fit. I listened to and analyzed all 147 entries using a variety of criteria, most of which I discuss in this video:

 
 

For the sake of time I omitted a few of the items that were either a little less popular or a little more nebulous, so I thought I’d dive into those here.

PHRASE SPEED

Given that my original melody plodded along very evenly in eighth notes, I marked down for each composition whether the second half was very similar in timing (97 entries), or incorporated generally faster or slower phrasing (40 and 18 respectively), or both (8). I don’t think we can draw very precise conclusions about this information, but given our natural inclinations to build towards a climax it would make sense that faster or higher-energy portions of a melody would occur in the latter part of a melody. Perhaps this activity centers around the golden ratio point? More study is needed.

REHARMONIZATION

I thought it would be more common to restate a large chunk of the melody over a new set of chords, but only two entries employed this technique. I wonder though if this might be due to the nature of my original melody and the type of movement it implied, or even the genres it might have suggested. I can think of many pop songs that restate the same melodic material over different chords, sometimes to great effect. 

This is also a fantastic tool when working on cover songs and remixes; hearing a familiar melody in a new harmonic context usually gives it a wonderfully fresh feeling.

AABA

Not the Swedish pop group. Though I'd bet they probably did use this structure from time to time. 

In the example of our melody, bars 1-2 contain the same rhythm as bars 3-4. Many people deviated from this, to varying degrees, in their 5th and 6th bars, and returned to it again for bars 7-8.

Interestingly, I noticed a sub-trend within the submissions that were structured this way. Several of the melodies’ B sections used the rhythm from the first half of the A section twice in a row. In other words, the rhythm in bar 1 was used for bar 5 and again in bar 6.

So we end up with an introductory rhythm, a restatement of the rhythm, a variation that is half as long but occurs twice in a row, and then the original again. How popular is this format? Well, in poetry, it comprises an entire genre, as men from Nantucket are well aware: the limerick.

We humans love AABA. A setup statement, a restatement for familiarity, something new to keep our interest, and the original thing again to give us closure

In fact, AABA is so powerful that if you really can't come up with more melodic material, you might be able to just use the same thing four times in a row, but change the lyrics on the third repeat

MULTI-TONALITY

For the advanced songwriters: you could consider taking modulation to the extremes. There were ten entries in our project that changed key centers very frequently, and within short periods of time. To many people this is a less palatable sound, but, done well, for theory nerds like me it’s one of the most exciting things you could ever attempt. Generally though this is a flavor that extends across an entire piece, or at least an entire section of a piece - it’s pretty jarring to suddenly throw in a bunch of modulations half way through an otherwise diatonic melody.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Thanks again to everyone who participated in this project. I’m thrilled with it. While the overall trends certainly point to familiar and favored approaches to developing a piece of music, I think the most amazing thing we heard was the incredible breadth of everyone’s unique creative nature.

Use the #chordstory hashtag on Twitter to join the discussion, hear more of the submissions, and post your own!