Music Production Tip: Breaking Down Difficult Melodies

G. W. Childs shares a useful tip for how to break down tricky melodies (maybe your own or from a song you've heard) using your DAW to help you learn how to play it more easily.  

I remember when I learned to read, it was a huge moment for me. And, I also remember the words that really caused me to move immediately from illiteracy to literacy. It was in the words that came from the mouth of my kindergarten teacher, “If you don’t know the word, just sound it out one letter at a time...”

She probably had no idea that I would take this wisdom throughout the rest of my life with writing, and in many other ways. For example: If I have a problem I don’t understand, I break it down, piece by piece. Also, I use it for music. If I don’t know how to play a part, I break down each note until I get it. 

Frustrating melodies can haunt you when you’re trying to play someone else’s song. Or, when you have a melody of your own stuck in your head that you just can’t seem to get down on the keyboard, or whatever it is you use. 

When I run into a brick wall trying to physically play a part, I generally resort to programming the part instead. Let me show you my method.

Step 1: Set Up a Loop and a Patch

In Ableton Live, or any other DAW that has looping, I’ll select a very basic patch that either closely resembles what I’m trying to emulate, or is just simple enough to differentiate each individual note. 

I’ll also make sure to set up the tempo at either the rate of the original melody, or I’ll make it even slower to make sure that I can get the part perfect. 

Now to set up a loop, or in this case a Clip, as they are referred to in Ableton. Though, if you’re in Logic, Reason, Pro Tools, etc, just set up your loop points normally.

Once the clip is created, I’ll expand the lower window so that the MIDI note editor shows me plenty of keys. 

Now, let’s add some notes...

Step 2: One Note at a Time

My first suggestion would be to add the first note and verify that it is, in fact, the right pitch. Hum along with it if need be (something I do regularly), or play the note side by side. I’d also suggest making sure that the note length matches the original as well. Is it an eighth note, sixteenth note? Whether you know or not, use the Narrow, or Widen Grid options to help you determine the note lengths. 

Note: You can use Ableton Live 9's Audio to MIDI feature to help you too! Read more about how to do this here:
http://www.askaudiomag.com/articles/converting-audio-to-midi-in-live-9

Keep in mind, notes within your melody may not all be the same length, but you can always increase, or decrease individual note lengths, when you highlight a particular note. Just move your cursor to the edge of the note, till it changes shape, and drag. 

Step 3: Loop Length

As you add notes, just let the loop continue and add each note that fits, like a puzzle. Delete it if you need to, there’s no pressure. Just add as needed, till it sounds perfect. In Ableton, new clips always default to one measure in length. Even with longer melodies, I still always start with one measure, and then add measures when I determine the length needs to be longer. This also keeps you from having to listen to long periods of silence. 

Conclusion

From here, just continue until the loop sounds perfect. If you used a simpler patch to nail the melody down, try changing to a patch that more closely resembles the original part, either in your head, or on a recording. 

And, now that you’ve programmed the melody, you know all the notes, as they are right there in front of you in the MIDI Editor. Now, you can try playing them out by hand, as you can see what to play! 

Sound Designer, Musician, Author... G.W. Childs has worn many hats. Beginning in the U.S. Army back in 1991, at the age of 18, G.W. began learning electronics, communications and then ultimately audio and video editing from the Department of Defense. Upon leaving the military G.W. went on to work for many exciting companies like Lu... Read More

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