Music Theory: How To Write Memorable Motifs and Melodies

So you're writing melodies and motifs that sound good... how can you improve these? How to make them sound better and work better in your songs? Jay Asher has some advice to share.  

When I first arrived in Los Angeles, a year after I had graduated from Boston Conservatory of Music with a degree in Composition, like most young composers who came here I struggled to get songs published and hired to score films and TV shows. Clearly, I still had much to learn. However, pretty much right away industry people told me that I had a gift for melody. Now considering that I sang early on and wrote songs from the age of 12 there was some natural talent there, but I really believe that an exercise required of us by my composition teacher, the late Dr. Avram David, made a huge difference and I would like to recommend it to you. I did this on score paper back then but you can either do it that way or in a DAW.

Our first assignment from Dr. David went something like this: “ I want you to turn in for every class for a week as many pages of free melodies, no time signature adherence required, as you can stand only using the interval of a 2nd. AND, you must try to make it as interesting as possible as we will play them at the piano and compare everyone’s attempts.”

Here is a small example:

Pic 1

Week 1: After a week of writing this, all of the composition majors were ready to scream because it was so limiting if you wanted it to work as music. But when we played them at the piano, dagnabit, by consensus some student’s attempts WERE more interesting music than others.

Week 2: “ Now you may occasionally add the interval of a 3rd, but you must then immediately go to a 2nd in the opposite direction.” See Pic 2. 

Pic 2

Oh my... such artistic freedom, the world is ours! Dutifully, we wrote page after page but soon this too became so restrictive, waterboarding was looking less like torture than doing this more.

Week 3: “ Now you may occasionally add the interval of a 4th as well as a 3rd, but with the 4th you must then immediately go to a 3rd in the opposite direction while with 3rds continuing to go to a 2nd.”

In the words of Martin Luther King, “Free at last, God Almighty we are free at last!” 

But wouldn’t you know it after we wrote page after page after page, this became maddening to the point where we all discussed carpentry as an alternative career.

Well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that eventually 5ths, 6ths, and 7ths, were allowed and then the minor versions of those intervals, all with restrictions. After all was said and done, we did this for the whole first semester. It drove us absolutely crazy but everyone agreed that they now wrote better motifs and melodies because of this exercise. The really funny thing is that even when we started writing 12-tone music, we did so more interestingly for having done this so much.

Give it a try!

Jay is a Los Angeles-based composer, songwriter, arranger and orchestrator, conductor, keyboardist, as well as vocalist. As a composer, he is best known for scoring the New World Television series Zorro. Among the films and TV movies he has arranged, orchestrated and/or conducted are Paramount Pictures' Blame It On Rio Read More

Discussion

Greg
If I'm to follow your professor's instructions, can I use unisons, or am I strictly limited to whatever intervals are allowed that week?
Tieg
You can't just stop the article right there! (This was great. Keep going!)
Jay Asher
No unisons, Greg. :)
Eli
Hey Jay,

That was a great article. I'm a big fan of these types of disciplined writing exercises. Like the old saying goes: The absence of limitations is the biggest obstacle to creativity!

Eli
hyperscientist
Thank you Jay, I love the concept and will try it starting today!

But I am not sure about week 3… When I play 4th interval I should immediately go to 3rd (opposite direction) and then what - does the rules about 3rds apply here still? So after 4th I should immediately go to 3rd and then immediately go to 2nd? That would be limiting for real, so I guess not :)
jamr
What about the restrictions imposed for the 5th, 6th, 7th and then the minors? It would be nice to know how those were used in your exercise as well, since you mentioned it.
Jay Asher
Always a second in the opposite direction.
hyperscientist
So lets say that in the future I will play 5ths and let's play in major C.

It goes like this:

C (5th) G (mandatory opposite 4th) D (mandatory opposite 3rd) F (mandatory opposite 2nd) E?

Or for 7th: C B D A E G F?

So basically every time I play interval I need to "spiral" down?

It almost doesn't make sense :)

Possibly if I play 5th I am forced to play opposite 4th, but then I am free to play whatever interval (3rd or 2nd in any direction)?

I feel very stupid for not understanding, but simple example for week 3 and 4 would truly clear things up for me :)

Maybe a follow up article in 2 weeks time with more examples? :)
Jay Asher


1. There is no "key" per se', but it is diatonic. And no matter which interval you go up or down to, you must immediately then use a 2nd in the opposite direction.

2. Let us say that we have now gone through 2nd, 3rds, and are now incorporating 4ths. If iJump up a 4th I must immediately step down a 2nd. I then write mostly 2nds but now jump down a 3rd. I now immediately must step up a 2nd. I do seconds for a bit and go up/down a 4th again. Immediately I must do a 2nd in the opposite direction.
hyperscientist
Jay, thank you very much. That cleared things up for good!
Jay Asher
Good.
Gary Hiebner
Great article! Rules and Restrictions can be a blessing in disguise with composing.
Ephisus
I'm just getting into music theory having casually played since my teenage years; mostly for understanding score better in my filmmaking. I was really enjoying this article, got to the bottom of the page, and and instantly recognized that it was written by the person who scored my favorite childhood show, Zorro. Will be visiting regularly now.
Jay Asher
Thank you for the kind words Ephisus. Also thanks Gary.

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