The world sets on fire as you try to create a great sounding melody.

Nothing could prepare you for the frustrating experience of sitting there for 30 minutes or more with nothing to show, except a few notes that sound mediocre at best, and a failure at worst. Nothing like the ledgendary rock riffs you hear all the time. Such beauty! Such awesomeness! And yet for all the songwriting tricks you’ve learned, it seems there is something missing.

Aspiring musical hero, I’m here to tell you there is an important songwriting concept no one really talks about, yet it is embedded in every melody in all the songs you’ve ever heard.

And that, fellow travellers, is Targeting Chord Tones with Melodic Rhythm.

(blows tiny fanfare trumpet)

What is Melodic Rhythm?

Epic intros aside, melodic rhythm is made up of lots of things, and I don’t actually believe there is one singular concept that will change the universal fabric of your melody making skills. 

But it was kinda cool, right? 

Did it hook ya? HAHAHAHAHA NOW YOU’RE MINE FOREVER!!! 

ahem• 

So what is melodic rhythm?

It is where notes of the melody land on specific beats to outline a harmony. The basic practise amongst common music makers is to use chord tones on the strong beats of a bar – the 1st and 3rd beats – to target the chord the melody is playing over. 

Think of chord tones as naughty little gremlins who like to pick on and squash the 1st and 3rd beats in a bar. They float around in the song, and when they pass over 1 and 3, they go SQUISH!

Thus the 1st and 3rd beats must be strong to withstand such maleficent naughtiness.   

How does this help us? Being able to target the chord, we can write melodies that fit better with the chords we play them with. They won’t sound out of place; they will sound like they belong there, like Hans Solo and Princess Leia, or a cup of tea and a biscuit. (I’m more of a coffee boy myself) And this contributes to a better sounding song. 

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Let’s say we’re playing over a D chord. The chord tones would be D, F, A. Below we’re playing these chord tones on the strong beats, the 1st and 3rd beats:

The D, F, and A note gremlins punctuate the phrase by (naughtily) playing on the strong beats and thus emphasise the D chord underneath. This makes the melody sound like it fits, like a figurative musical glove. 

“But the A note in the example doesn’t land on the 3rd beat!” I hear you cry. 

You are correct my friend – just like is done with that A note on the 3rd beat, we can also variate our notes to play just before or after the 1st and 3rd beats. When this happens the melody gremlins still manage to squish the strong beats and ‘fit’ with the chords underneath because they are within a close enough range to produce the same effect. That and they have very fat bottoms from stealing all the cookies in the cookie jar. (who will end their reign of mischief?) 

Generating Forward Motion

Playing chord tones on strong beats doesn’t just outline the harmony, however – it creates forward motion, which is another key concept in how the fabled melodic rhythm works. Forward motion is present in every kick arse song that makes you want to keep listening while you dance in your kitchen (I’m more of a birthday-suit-bedroom boy myself), and is produced by the progression and resolution of the notes in the melody. 

In our example above we have a chord tone squishing the first beat, followed by another squashing the 3rd beat – this creates forward motion, because you have two strong chord tones squishing two strong beats, one after the other, with weak chord tones on the weaker beats 2 and 4. 

The strong tones progress with the weak tones, which become very tense being away from their bigger brothers and thus create a lot of tension. The weak tones then have to resolve to the strong tones in order to resolve their tension. Only when this pattern of strong/ weak tones occurs is forward motion juice available. The juice produced by the squashed strong beats reacts with the air around it and thus forward motion is created. 

Just to summarise that mega metaphor, tension is created by: 

  1. starting from a strong tone & beat, 
  2. progressing with a weak tone and beat, 
  3. then resolving with a strong tone and beat. 

Ka-peesh?

Playing strong tones on strong beats generally always creates forward motion, but this isn’t the only way it’s created. To generate even more forward motion and thus make our songs even more interesting, we can use something I like to call the 

•grabs microphone in empty stadium•

POLAR OPPOSITE CONCEPT! 

Polar Opposite Concept

In order to start creating more forward motion, we need a method of identifying where our licks get people pumped and when the audience is snoring. 

We can do this by playing with the expectations of the listener, adding change to keep them interested as if they were listening to the greatest motherfucking song of all time, and working this on a balancing scale between change and repetition. 

In other words, we’re creating forward motion juice by switching between two polar opposite concepts in music. These include, but are not limited to:

  • progression and tension, 
  • loud and quiet
  • diatonic and chromatic, etc.

Like doing a good cop and bad cop routine on the naughty gremlins to stop them from terrorising the beats, switching the levels between these opposites at well timed points are how we create flow in music. It’s all about using your intuition to know when to change and when to stay the same.

Essentially, the reason why some melodies flow and others don’t is because the ones that flow use melodic rhythm to generate forward motion.

Melodic rhythm is more than playing chord tones on strong beats; it’s about using the polar opposite concept in the song the melody belongs to, and using it wisely. Like I said, generating forward motion juice – and therefore, flow – is a mix of things, and experimentation is key here to find your own style of creating your own home brewed interest juice. 

We can also stack changing polar opposites on top of one another, or have them in quick succession, to build even more tension. It is similar to the dominant chord concept in Jazz, where you can add many layers of tension with the #9, b5, etc. on one dominant chord.

Did I mention that Jazz is awesome and you should check out this concept if you don’t know it already? 

And if you do you’ll realise it’s near limitless melodic power and RULE THE EARTH WITH A FIGURATIVE IRON FIST??? 

But anyway. Back on using tension.

An ideal place for adding loads of tension are on weak tones, or where you want something to resolve; typically at the end of a 4 bar phrase, or just before a chorus, the weakest points in the song and thus the most unstable and anxiety-prone.

This is where recognising patterns in music helps, as well as looking at the harmonic rhythm, which is simply the melodic rhythm but on a broader scale. You can then work into a rhythm of change, one that suits your artistic tastes, getting your own groove of beat squishing. 

I hope these metaphors help. I really do. They’re so much fun!

Woohoo!

Examples of Melodic Rhythm

Here are some examples of melodic rhythm taken from my own song “Love Game Music”. Here’s a table of the melodies and harmonies for reference:

Key: C Major

Chords of C Major:

C  Dm  Em   F   G7   Am  Bdim
I     II     III    IV   V7    VI     VII

The First Example

Chord being played over:
C Major

Chord tones of C Major:
C E G

  • Melody starts with a strong chord tone, C note, on the first beat
  • Progresses with a weak 2nd tone, D note, then finishes the idea on strong tones E and C (the 3rd and 1st chord tones of C) on a weak 2nd beat. 
  • Starts 3rd strong beat with a strong 5th chord tone G, which then progresses using weak tones to end on a weak 2nd tone for the 4th beat. 

The 2nd Example

Chord being played over:
D Minor

Chord tones of D Minor:
D F A

  • Starts with a weak tone C note then a strong chord tone D note following it
  • Melody continuing to rise until it hits a peak on the weak note C an octave higher on the last half of the 8th bar
    • This note harmonises with a minor 2nd chord, which prolongs tension by not being a tonic chord which would bring the melodic idea to a close, but instead causes you to expect the idea to close/ progress in the next bar; this essentially leaves the flow of music open.
      • In order for the music to continue it’s flow, i.e. not be boring, the pattern needs to develop in the next large phrase, as it comes to a conclusion in the 1st beat of the next section

Playing with expectation of the listener is something key to keep in mind when you’re creating melodies with melodic rhythm. You can see that in the beginning of this example I’m using strong tones on weak beats, defying the expectation of playing weak tones on those weak beats. However it doesn’t sound out of place, largely due to using the notes only in the key, which stabilises any rhythm. 

Simply put, melodic rhythm isn’t the be-all-end-all for creating great melodies. But it helps a lot when you keep it in mind. I hope it helps you generate more flow, write better music, and make the process of connecting with your ideas that much easier. 

Peace!

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