How to Develop a Melody Using Sequencing

Sequencing is another time-honored tool that most composers use on a regular basis. Sequencing is the immediate repetition of a motive at a higher or lower pitch level. The motive can be almost any length the composer desires as long as it is not a complete repetition of the entire phrase. Often the motive is quite short, just a few beats or a single measure.

I particularly like to use ascending sequences. They create a sense of growing intensity and anticipation, as if something important is about to happen. They work well as transitions to new sections or as a build up to an important climactic moment.

There are a number of different types of sequences. Two of the most used sequences are exact and tonal. Example No 1 is an original melody which I used in my first blog post to demonstrate inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion. Example No. 2 is the same melody subjected to exact sequencing. All of the intervals in each sequence are exactly the same as the original melody. Accidentals have to be added to maintain the intervallic relationship among the notes. This is sometimes referred to as a modulating sequence because, with the addition of so many accidentals in measure 4, the phrase has essentially modulated to the key of C# major.

Example No. 1

original

Example No. 2

sequencing exact

Example No. 3 is the same melody subjected to tonally adjusted sequencing. None of the sequences have accidentals; therefore, the phrase remains in the key of F# minor.

Examples No. 3

tonally adjusted sequencing

Three and out is the general rule for sequencing. In other words, whatever you decide to sequence should only be sequenced three times; anything longer feels predictable and tedious.

In addition, it is advisable to vary the sequences. Change some of the notes or invert one of the sequences to keep the listener off balance. Most people are sophisticated enough to understand that a sequence is in progress and can predict what it will sound like as it unfolds. If one of the sequences, usually the third, is a little different, it will keep the audience off balance and engaged. If they can predict exactly what you are going to do next, you have lost them. Keep them engaged with unpredictable twists and turns. Example No. 4 demonstrates this concept. The last sequence is inverted; all of the intervals are upside down.

I encourage you to play through these examples, then apply sequencing to one of your own melodies and see what happens. Enjoy!

Example No. 4

exact with inversion

How to Write a Melody, A Video Example

 

I recently discussed the value of inversion and retrograde, two compositional techniques, in an earlier post.

Here is an original composition for classical guitar, “Rainy Nights for Jennifer”  that demonstrates these techniques. The first example of inversion occurs at 1:48. There are a number of other examples throughout the composition, especially after the tempo change at 2:05.

This was a live performance at the Atlanta Institute of Music.

Let me know what you hear.

How To Write A Melody

One of the most challenging aspects of music composition is thematic development. As a composition instructor, I have found most of my students can come up with convincing melodic, gestural, or textural ideas, but they struggle when writing an entire piece. Most students get “stuck” at a particular point, get frustrated, and eventually give up. The problem is they don’t know how to develop their initial ideas, and their progress grinds to a halt. Fear not! For the professor is here to give you the tools you need to become a great composer.

Here is a partial list of some time-honored compositional tools. These tools can be applied to almost any style of music. Comment if you can think of anything I have left out, and I will add it to the list.

Capture2

In this blog post, I will focus on inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion, by far the most widely known and beloved compositional tools. Inversion means all of the intervals in a particular melody are upside down. Example No. 1 shows an original melody followed by its inversion. Notice that the ascending triad in measure 1 becomes a descending triad when inverted, a mirror image of the original melody.

Example No. 1

melodic development blog pic 1

There are two types of inversion, exact and tonally adjusted. In an exact inversion, all of the intervals are exactly the same as the intervals in the original, only upside down. In a tonally adjusted inversion, the most common type, intervals are modified to stay within the key. The above example is a tonally adjusted inversion, an exact inversion would require note D in measure 1 to be a D#.

Retrograde is the original melody play backward. Example No. 2 is the original melody from Example No. 1 played backward.

 Example No. 2

melodic development blog pic 2

Retrograde inversion is the inversion played backward. Example No. 3 is the inversion of the original melody played backward.

Example No. 3

melodic development blog pic 3

I encourage you to play these examples on your instrument. Notice how each one has its own character, yet sounds related to the original melody. This is because the intervallic and rhythmic content is virtually identical in each example, so the next time you find yourself “stuck,” apply these compositional tools to your melody, and see if it generates new material. If you like your original idea, you will probably like the inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion as well. It is similar to looking at a beautiful painting in a mirror. If it looks great on the wall, it will look great in a mirror too. Enjoy!