Melody Detox – updated

For this first week back of the new year, I decided to focus on melody with all my year 9 and 10 students. For year 9 this was their first experience of writing melodies with this amount of depth of thought, and a timely reminder for year 10 who are beginning to compose longer works. As mentioned in a previous post, the melody is so fundamental in any composition.

I began by asking them what a melody was. Answers included:

“It’s the ‘main bit’ of the music”

“Motif”

“Character”

“Tells a story”

“Makes a piece unique”

“Can make us feel sad or happy”

“Can make it sound like someone is eating chicken in a medieval castle”

“Catchy”

“Memorable”

“Sets a mood”

All brilliant answers, but I wonder how many of them had re-considered these purposes before writing their last melody.

I continued on to ask them, what makes a good melody? Answers included:

“High-pitched”

“Structure”

“Major & Minor scale”

“The right key… not all plonky!”

“Keeping it in time like pulse”

“Different textures”

“Not repetitive”

“Fits together and flows”

“Doesn’t jump up multiple octaves”

“Makes sense with other parts of music”

“Uses musical devices”

A huge range of answers here showing that some students are more confident than others, but overall this was a harder question for them than the first.

Next I gave them this brief, which is their challenge to have completed in 6 weeks time.

We began together in each class by planning or drawing out the requirements of the task.

As in the image below, this discussion included:

– A decision for everyone to write initially in D major, with a time signature of 4/4, for piano, tempo of crotchet = 115, and with an 8-bar melodic structure of ABAC.

– To write out the notes in the D Major scale and discuss the points of the scale, making particular reference to the tonic and the dominant.

– To draw out the 8 bars, marking on bar numbers and the structure ABAC. Discussion of which bars would then be the same and which different

– Make decisions of how each of the 4, 2-bar phrase sections would end, ‘finished’ or ‘unfinished’.

– Make decisions about which cadences to use later on in the harmony and therefore which melody notes to target at the end of each phrase.

The year 9 and 10 traditional Music GCSE students are completing this individually. The new Production Via Tech pathway are completing it in pairs as many do not play instruments or read notation, so extra support and encouragement is helpful.

Students began by composing a 2-bar rhythm, with all notes on ‘D’. Having considered the melody structure, they copied and pasted this into bars 5 and 6. To compose the rhythm for bars 3 and 4, they listened to the first two bars, both from Sibelius and by clapping, and wrote down the idea that made most sense to them as a response to their opening idea. Then listening to bars 1-6, they created their 7-8 in the same way, with the addition of considering that it need to sound finished.

Having shared their work with each other, they returned to the previous question of ‘what makes a good melody?’, now also recognising that is was helpful to have a deeper level of control. Their answers now:

– “Clear structure”

– “Music broken down into phrases”

– “Some thought of where the melody sounds finished and unfinished”

– “Use the longest note at the end to make it sound finished”

– “For memorable, it helps to keep it simple and have some repetitive parts”

All excellent answers, showing musical understanding.

Next we considered the pitches in the melody. We had a discussion about how, when listening, movement by-step was simpler to understand than by-leap. Students discovered quickly that the amount of up and down motion in each of the 2-bar phrases could also control how simple or complex the outcome was. Thinking about the cadence points in the initial plan helped students to place those ‘signpost notes’ into the music before beginning to change others. They also found another controller of simple/complex was the range.

The outcomes of all pieces were amazing. All learners in years 9 and 10 completed their unique melody within the 2 hours and all met the required standard. Perhaps most fascinating, was that Year 9 Production Via Technology found the task most straightforward. Their melodies were of equal standard to the other students’, despite many of them not having notation backgrounds. I am continuing to learn much about how our young people learn in many different ways.

As I draw this entry to a close, I must mention the music of Lucas & Leo, two of our 9PvT class. They mistakenly selected a key signature of 2bs instead of 2#s at the start of the lesson and at some point in the process also decided that C was the tonic note. They had inadvertently composed in Dorian mode in C. Their melody was absolute exquisite and mouths dropped open around the room as everybody heard it. It sounded amazing as they’d understood how to balance rhythm and shape, how to create an ABAC melody structure and how to consider cadence points at the end of each phrase. By listening critically and with a determination to control their music, they were able to create something magnificent.

Title Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Author: davelowemusiceducation

Dave Lowe MA PGDip PGCE(M) BSc(Hons) MMA SLE - Currently Director of Learning: Performing Arts & Head of Music at Manor CE Academy, York - Specialist in Music Education using Technology - Author of "How to Write Great Music" (Lulu Publishing, 2015) - National examiner and moderator for GCSE Music Composition

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