Writing Melodies Without Chords

When I study music theory online using youtube, google searches, forums, etc., a lot of topics cover chords, chord progressions, etc.

Using chords in the modular world, while certainly possible, is not as easy as let’s say, a guitar.

For example, using a singular oscillator and a sequencer, what is available is one voice and then a single note/rest per step. While I’m somewhat happy with my noodling results, I’d like to be able to learn writing better melodies within the simple restraints of an individual oscillator and a simple sequencer.

What recommendations do you all have for me to beef up my skills in this area? Any resources you recommend?

(Category Note: as I’m somewhat new here, if this topic does not belong in “studies” let me know or move it to where it’s most applicable, thanks!)

9 Likes

Forward Motion by Hal Galper.

If I was to sum up the book: all melodies follow chords. If you listen to a expert jazz soloist, you can hear the chords go by with all the clarity a piano or guitar accompaniment would offer.

Also strong melodies end on beat one, or beat three.

3 Likes

Paging @disquiet to plug the recent work we’ve been doing with Russo’s “Composing Music” in the Disquiet Slack…

5 Likes

Awesome, I just bought “Composing” off Amazon, will start studying! Thanks for the resource!

1 Like

I find that a really useful concept to familiarize yourself with is the difference between a chord note and a non-chord note. Choose chord and then a small set of notes from each category and then arrange them in an order that sounds good.

3 Likes

Regarding a single oscillator/note per step: you can generate chordal sounds with a little bit of delay/reverb so the notes bleed together. A lot of the early monophonic synth users leaned heavily on this ‘trick’.

4 Likes

I’ll mention that Russo emphasizes monophonic melody (especially at first, melody over chordal harmony comes in later in the book). He instructs you to sing the melody as you are composing, as a means of getting it into your head. So, in this case, a monophonic instrument is a positive, not a negative.

8 Likes

That’s a fantastic idea, didn’t think of that before. That’s why I posted my question here, for gems like this!

2 Likes

a different and maybe a more difficult approach compared to some of these, but studying counterpoint has been very helpful for me, even on the modular. traditional counterpoint is rather strict but it wouldn’t hurt to check out some of bach’s two part inventions or 3 part sinfonias. although your question is referring to just one voice, in ideal counterpoint, each voice should still be significant enough to stand on its own (monophonically)

it’s been a bit since i’ve looked at them, but invention #9 in F minor is a good one. that one in particular is a good example of how to take 1 or 2 ideas and shift them around in interesting ways; a useful trick when sequencers often have only 8 or 16 steps.

but if you’re not down with classical music, the book “Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies…” has a great chapter that analyzes the counterpoint in a boards of canada track

8 Likes

Sure thing. Over in the Junto Slack, there’s a discussion going on about Russo’s book Composing Music. The discussion was initiated by the generous @ntrier. The idea is to work through the book’s composition exercises. The first project is due by January 29. If you want to participate, shoot me a request to join the Slack at marc@disquiet.com.

7 Likes

Awesome, thanks. Once I get the book (supposed to be delivered on Thursday) I’ll look it over and see about joining the slack channel from there!

3 Likes

how is your music theory knowledge and note-reading skills?

There are various approaches to constructing melodies - as @jasonw22 said, “Composing Music” starts out with unaccompanied melodies. It also has a chapter on analyzing melodies by mapping their notes onto a grid, which is an interesting way to approach it.

You could also check out some Gregorian chant (many would say singable melodies are the best melodies…)

I can drop some music theory knowledge, but I am very ignorant of modular rigs, so I don’t know how you might want to translate this (but I would be super interested to hear about your progress!)

My music theory students learned a Western classical approach to writing melodies - I’ll just dump it here:

Western classical music says all good melodies have two parts: an antecedent phrase and a consequent phrase. The antecedent asks the question, the consequent answers it. (https://sites.google.com/a/egrps.org/ib-music-interactive/home/sound/melody/phrases)

Generally, an antecedent ends on a note other than the first degree of the scale; scale degrees 2 5 and 7 are solid choices. A consequent phrase will wrap everything up, often (but not always) on scale degree #1, sometimes #3 or #5, but those are a less declarative ending to the phrase.

You can also analyze phrases by looking at if they are:

  • Regular length (2 measure, 4 measures) or Irregular length (either)
  • Long or short
  • Flowing (all the notes are next to each other) or Fragmented (jumps between the notes)

The phrases in the melody to Angels We Have Heard on High, for example, are “flowing:”

Then I show my students this Ligeti piece to make sure we’re not taking the rules too seriously:

And If it inspires you, here is a playlist I made of mostly monophonic solo instruments.

16 Likes

Maybe you can try copying some melodies you really like and see what characteristics they might share? The process of emulating can get you into certain habits that will provoke results later when you’re fiddling.

Also, +1 to @ellips_s re: counterpoint — harmony is vertical, melody is horizontal, and counterpoint is how western music moved from the single lines of gregorian chant to stacked horizontal lines to vertical harmonies. Could be interesting to study for overall musical knowledge.

Also, I’m blown away by the melodies in a lot of folk music traditions, especially the ones with solo singers. If I come across any outstanding videos, I’ll post them. Melody arguably originated in singing, though instrumental music has had its own effect on the concept, but definitely singing is part of it.

4 Likes

I’m thinking that will inspire some great ideas using pitched buffers on the ER-301.

Speaking of that, it’s technically 2 voices, but I love this video by @tehn . He constructs quite a bit with a small modular setup and MLR, exploring transposition/looping:

One other thing loosely surrounding writing melodies without chords is this Laurie Spiegel article, titled ‘Manipulations of Musical Patterns’. It’s a great read to shake you out of thinking around chords and more about melodies.

http://retiary.org/ls/writings/musical_manip.html

Found it originally in this thread:

6 Likes

Actually, let me flip this - is there a way I could begin to experiment with constructing melodies (and only melodies) using VCV Rack?

1 Like

Would add that you can follow and create a chord structure monophonically with arpeggios.

From a tonal western perspective you can think of building tension and releasing it through resolution. There’s loads out there regarding that, not least of which is above. I’m digging around for an interesting chart I stumbled across last year and will post when I find it.

1 Like

This reminds me of the web app port of her music mouse app that I think I discovered here. It’s super fun and I could see it being useful in exploring melodies and keys/scales/modes.

3 Likes

@ntrier wow thanks for all the great information. I’ve added the videos you’ve shared to my watchlist and will devour them soon, thank you! And thanks for the doc!

@horridus I agree that the modular world gives the freedom to find your own way, so to speak, without the limitations of traditional possibilities. I feel like I need to be comfortable in the basics and know the “rules” before I start to break them, if that makes sense. Your post did inspire me to not be so hard on myself for experimenting though, so thank you!

@Jonny thanks for the video as well as Laurie Spiegel’s article! Super inspiring

@healthylives I feel I’m pretty good with arpeggio style, fairly fast note combinations. Where I am weak is the more slow, single note progressions that are sustained for a few beats or even bars. I want to get to the point where I can have a subtle arpeggio-style undercurrent with held notes floating in on the surface to create more beautiful and evolving pieces.

Thanks everyone for this great discussion, I’m learning a ton!

1 Like

Likewise learning a lot here! One thought, if you have created a basic progression/structure, and can have that going as a “subtle undercurrent”, you might try singing over top of things. Record yourself, and transcribe it back as a lead synth line. Might lead you in some surprising directions!

Short answer is “yes”.

Longer answer:
https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=getting+started+with+vcv+rack

Let us know what your specific questions are when you bump into them. There are some great “learning modular” threads here on lines where we could dive deep.

2 Likes