Here’s a post from guest author Doug Hanvey. You can learn more about him at www.portlandpianolab.com.
Composing a melody by singing is a method that has been used by many of the greatest melodists. The reasons are obvious:
- By singing it’s more likely that your melody will be generated from the deepest and most personal well of creativity within you. If you simply work out a melody with your fingers at the piano, you are less likely to be connecting with that innermost musical place.
- Singing your melody helps you to better understand its structure (contour, climax etc.) in terms of the primal melodic instrument: the human voice.
- Singing engages your body, and the body is the primal rhythm instrument. As a result, your melody is likely to be more rhythmically effective and interesting.
- Melodies and even simple figures or motives that can be easily sung are more likely to be accessible to the average Joe and Jane. (This may be one reason why vocal forms are ubiquitous in both folk and popular music.) It’s especially useful to sing when composing a vocal melody.
Many (if not most) of the great composers did not write at an instrument. We may not know whether they sang their melodies as they composed, but it’s a good bet that they were “virtually” singing them by mentally hearing them.
The same is also true of many if not most of the great popular songwriters. For example, musical theater composer Richard Rodgers, one of the greatest melodists of the 20th century, wrote his songs by singing the melody while playing chords on the piano. John Lennon and Paul McCartney composed their tunes by singing them while playing their guitars.
Many of the greatest jazz pianists, such as Bud Powell and Keith Jarrett, vocalize while improvising (same principle).
Convinced it’s worth a try? Follow these steps, one at a time, to engage your virtual or actual voice when composing a melody:
- First try hearing your melody inside your head (without actually singing it) and notate it without playing it on your instrument, if you can. This requires a pretty good musical ear, but that is easy enough to develop. By the way, don’t worry about the chords at first. It’s generally better – at least from a melodic perspective – to let the melody dictate the harmony rather than allowing harmonic demands to interfere with the organic nature of the melody.
- If the above feels too challenging, sing your melody out loud and notate it without playing it on your instrument.
- Finally, easiest – but last, because it’s tempting to get lost in your established compositional habits – sing your melody, then learn to play it on your instrument, then notate it.