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Writing melodies that are too "obvious"


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I know quite a bit about music theory but am no jazz master. I feel like my mind is always pushing for too straight forward melodies and harmonies. It lacks surprising and interesting ornamentaions and harmonic movement. Any one have any rules of thumb they follow for stuff like this? Techniques?

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I'm trying to learn this myself. I've been watching Adam Neely's videos on youtube which are a great help for understanding theory. Andrew Huang is a good teacher as well.

 

A few things I've learned, mostly by myself:

 

Throw in weird, out of scale notes and then try to adjust the chord progression so they fit. Or keep the existing progression and embrace weirdness/polytonality.

 

If you usually write a chord progression first and then a melody, do the opposite and write the melody first. 

 

Similarly, if you just can't get away from writing "obvious" melodies (nothing wrong with that, btw!), change the chords under the melody, one by one, or even just the bass notes. I've made some really straight melodies sound weirder by swapping out chords for other ones that still contain (some/most of) the notes used in the melody.

 

These tips are all fairly similar, but I think the key is to just force yourself to make things sound odd and a little off. Eventually you'll get used to hearing it like that, and whatever "straight" version you wrote earlier will be the one that sounds weird.. at least that's how it goes for me.

 

Also, analyse other music! This was a really important one for me. I've learned so many melodic/harmonic techniques from 70s and 80s prog; I owe a lot to Tony Banks :D

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We have to train ourselves so that we can improvise on anything: a bird, a sock, a fuming beaker. This is, this too can be music. Anything can be music.

 

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Edited by RSP
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i totally feel this. i don't know much music theory, just go by ear.. some things i try which sometimes are good and sometimes horrid: (assuming sequenced/midi stuff)

 

automatic scale changers - eg the 'scale' midi fx in ableton live. record my cheesy obvious tune and map it to a different scale afterwards. sometimes only a couple notes get changed, sometimes the whole thing. (sometimes i map it to a scale with only 2 or 3 different notes in so the melody becomes a rhythm line instead).. occasionally come up with some really pleasing total mood changes this way, which i probably wouldn't have done on purpose.

 

arpeggiators - again, i often stick these on a tune i've already laid down & then tweak for unpredicted results, as opposed to setting up intentionally beforehand. can use them to change the timing, add little ornaments in between notes, set non-major-or-minor-key-preserving intervals so things sound wrong (maybe i put a scale changer on it afterwards to make it sound differently right again), etc. play the same tune through two different arps with different timing to catch/emphasise different notes & make more intricate rhythms. arp can sound too uniform & obvious as well so it's fun to automate it..

 

if i'm recording with midi keyboard (which, i can't really play keys, i just mess around with it) i try to just dwell on the feeling of playing it, the rhythm i'm playing instead of the exact notes. and wobble the pitch bend around in pattern-ish ways, like the pitch bend is a rhythmic element.

 

if it's a repeating melodic line - delete some of its notes. delete a couple. delete some important ones. delete all of them except three, whatever. then delete different ones next time. so instead of a tune which repeats over and over, it's like different parts of the tune are revealed at different times and ur brain can fill in the gaps..

 

.. so yeah those are things i try to do, which aren't as cool as being able to just come up with and perform interesting stuff intentionally.. but at least maybe can be a way in, or a way to get ideas.. =)

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I went to school for music and took up to college senior music theory so I know a lot. Its just the use of it is hard make stuff I havent heard a million times. I need my songs to make sense harmonically its just a pet peeve when I hear a song where i can just tell who ever made it has no sense of how notes fit together at all. But music is so much more enjoyable when artists can take common motifs that you recognize but then spin it to something interesting and fresh that still has the same feel of outer movement. I used to write lots of counter points and such but im trying to learn more about using alt chords and being able to substitute for tension and then resolve things more dramatically.

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i totally feel this. i don't know much music theory, just go by ear.. some things i try which sometimes are good and sometimes horrid: (assuming sequenced/midi stuff)

 

automatic scale changers - eg the 'scale' midi fx in ableton live. record my cheesy obvious tune and map it to a different scale afterwards. sometimes only a couple notes get changed, sometimes the whole thing. (sometimes i map it to a scale with only 2 or 3 different notes in so the melody becomes a rhythm line instead).. occasionally come up with some really pleasing total mood changes this way, which i probably wouldn't have done on purpose.

 

arpeggiators - again, i often stick these on a tune i've already laid down & then tweak for unpredicted results, as opposed to setting up intentionally beforehand. can use them to change the timing, add little ornaments in between notes, set non-major-or-minor-key-preserving intervals so things sound wrong (maybe i put a scale changer on it afterwards to make it sound differently right again), etc. play the same tune through two different arps with different timing to catch/emphasise different notes & make more intricate rhythms. arp can sound too uniform & obvious as well so it's fun to automate it..

 

if i'm recording with midi keyboard (which, i can't really play keys, i just mess around with it) i try to just dwell on the feeling of playing it, the rhythm i'm playing instead of the exact notes. and wobble the pitch bend around in pattern-ish ways, like the pitch bend is a rhythmic element.

 

if it's a repeating melodic line - delete some of its notes. delete a couple. delete some important ones. delete all of them except three, whatever. then delete different ones next time. so instead of a tune which repeats over and over, it's like different parts of the tune are revealed at different times and ur brain can fill in the gaps..

 

.. so yeah those are things i try to do, which aren't as cool as being able to just come up with and perform interesting stuff intentionally.. but at least maybe can be a way in, or a way to get ideas.. =)

 

This is an amazing list of different but simple tricks. I think I have had similar ideas but never bothered to really spell all of it out. Thanks!

 

I went to school for music and took up to college senior music theory so I know a lot. Its just the use of it is hard make stuff I havent heard a million times. I need my songs to make sense harmonically its just a pet peeve when I hear a song where i can just tell who ever made it has no sense of how notes fit together at all. But music is so much more enjoyable when artists can take common motifs that you recognize but then spin it to something interesting and fresh that still has the same feel of outer movement. I used to write lots of counter points and such but im trying to learn more about using alt chords and being able to substitute for tension and then resolve things more dramatically.

 

To be honest I wouldn't worry about writing "too obvious" melodies, because in the end even if they are obvious for you, they may not be obvious to any listeners. I think the discussion in the "true fackts about music making" thread just went through similar points that you are making here. My opinion is that basically if you immerse yourself in different styles and artists and get to know their music, then whatever music comes out of you will be your personal "mix" of you & them. Because you are playing the music, it's easy to see everything as obvious, but it is only because you are so intimately familiar with your own material.

 

Of course, if you are lifting hooks, passages or melodies 1-to-1 from other music, then yeah I understand that at some point it becomes too obvious.

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I went to school for music and took up to college senior music theory so I know a lot. Its just the use of it is hard make stuff I havent heard a million times. I need my songs to make sense harmonically its just a pet peeve when I hear a song where i can just tell who ever made it has no sense of how notes fit together at all. But music is so much more enjoyable when artists can take common motifs that you recognize but then spin it to something interesting and fresh that still has the same feel of outer movement. I used to write lots of counter points and such but im trying to learn more about using alt chords and being able to substitute for tension and then resolve things more dramatically.

oh right! I didn't realise you knew a lot of theory.. in which case I think thawkins' advice above counts more than mine.

 

Regarding "I can just tell who ever made it has no sense of how notes fit together at all", what if this is deliberate? How can you tell the difference without actually knowing how much theory the composer knows? The only times I've thought of this are when I've heard compositions that attempt to go for a certain progression or melodic style, but fail due to some elements being missing/incorrect.. but even so, that could be deliberate.

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I went to school for music and took up to college senior music theory so I know a lot. Its just the use of it is hard make stuff I havent heard a million times. I need my songs to make sense harmonically its just a pet peeve when I hear a song where i can just tell who ever made it has no sense of how notes fit together at all. But music is so much more enjoyable when artists can take common motifs that you recognize but then spin it to something interesting and fresh that still has the same feel of outer movement. I used to write lots of counter points and such but im trying to learn more about using alt chords and being able to substitute for tension and then resolve things more dramatically.

 

Just to add on to what thawkins said, listen to some of your favorite artists that use interesting melodies. Since you know theory, analyze their works and steal accordingly. Alter to your tastes. I often find that using exotic scales, including the octotonic and whole-tone scale, makes eerie and interesting melodies even over rote chord progressions. 

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i don't know much about music theory. that's pretty obvious by my music i think.. 

 

i like to treat melody like the rest of the patch/song/structure whatever..  when possible i like to process the notes, apply probability, split polyphony out to different sounds with different envelopes/durations/fx etc.. 

 

i'll also just wit and work on a simple melody until i find it's usable or acceptable to me. 

 

i think if you apply lot's of modulation to parts of the synthesis then you can make simple obvious melodies sound really interesting or complex and evolving. 

 

if i knew theory or could actually play my ideas it'd maybe all go a lot faster and there's probably a lot of things i could try w/math that i'm not aware of so much. but there's a lot of tools available to help w/such things as well as things like 'chord finder' website for trying new things. 

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I enjoying deliberately write little pieces of a track (usually the intro) to sound like pop song to create a sense of familiarity to toy around with and morph peoples expectations accordingly from there. I find my most rewarding track to be of these types because there is an element of "surprise" to the listener when you do something familiar and proceed to turn it on its head at the right time. There is a lot that you can relate and communicate to other listeners by using it as a composition technique.

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Not knowing the theory and how to use harmony is like not knowing how to play with queen in chess.

 

Edit: Thats why im reading books about chess these days. Also, listening to quenn can help. :)

Edited by xox
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Sample some juicy chords, or just some "hollow" things that have multiple harmonic peaks. Variety of textures and "stuff" in the samples (tails of other instruments, strings squeaking etc.) is good. Now assign them each to a few different pitches and just aimlessly jam on them with pads. You'll hear surprising relationships between them. You might find that a new chord progression and even rhythm (especially with lots of "stuff") arises almost automatically.

 

If the end result sounds too hodgepodge, add layers of your own sounds until it captures the essence of what you discovered. Then just mute the chord-quilt, use it as a palimpsest. You can refer to it later if you get stuck.

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Not knowing the theory and how to use harmony is like not knowing how to play with queen in chess.

 

 

so it doesnt matter at all what you know cause you are doing it the right way in either case?

 

if thats what you mean then i second

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get this book

https://www.amazon.com/Melody-Songwriting-Techniques-Writing-Berklee/dp/063400638X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1517069621&sr=8-1&keywords=melody+writing

 

Really good book

 

You have to know all theory to really make use of it. Like a classical composer.

knowing about keys, understanding how scales are made and why. Knowing why a mode is a mode. All useful so you don't feel lost,

 

The main excuse from theory people is they say it gets you where you need to go quick. Which I find disturbing. No surprises there,

 

The best songwriters talk of music like putting up an antenna and waiting for it to come. Use the ears. Learn lots of chords. Play around.. build melodies on top of the chord structure you think sounds good. Have fun. Play an instrument without thinking.

Edited by marf
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Not knowing the theory and how to use harmony is like not knowing how to play with queen in chess.

 

 

so it doesnt matter at all what you know cause you are doing it the right way in either case?

 

if thats what you mean then i second

 

 

well i doubt that you can play a good chess not knowing how to move your queen, at least not as good as you could play. you're watching the other guy and you're trying to figure it out instead focusing on your play. rules and not just boundaries but knowledge about possibilities 

Edited by xox
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Not knowing the theory and how to use harmony is like not knowing how to play with queen in chess.

 

so it doesnt matter at all what you know cause you are doing it the right way in either case?

 

if thats what you mean then i second

Yeah frankly these kinds of comments are not helpful at all and just come across as smug, self-congratulatory and cowardly. Please be specific and help people learn instead of saying effectively, "you're stupid and don't know what you're doing if you don't know ____." Literally all you are doing is diminishing people who don't know theory, some of whom are featured artists on this site.

I'm really sick of theory being presented as this magical bullshit. The history of music is just people farting around with sounds and numbers and coming up with things that work for them. Seriously, be specific, provide examples. You don't need to spell the whole thing out, just say SOMETHING besides, if you don't know theory, you're not working with a full deck. 

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I apologize if that was over the top but seriously, if theory is really that powerful, then drop some knowledge that people can put into practice. If you can't do that, then that knowledge is probably worthless and your chess analogy is not only condescending but misleading.

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I apologize if that was over the top but seriously, if theory is really that powerful, then drop some knowledge that people can put into practice. If you can't do that, then that knowledge is probably worthless and your chess analogy is not only condescending but misleading.

 

no prob but i was seriously worried about you lol 

 

also didnt saw my metaphor as possibly offensive; sorry if it was/is

 

im sorry i cant be more helpfull cause i suck at musical theory. i've started to learn the theory again recently, for the 100th time and i hope i'll find enough time and energy this time. i believe that theory can help me. i belive... but i believed in the opposite too

 

let me reuse the metaphor... i play chess since i was 4 yrs old, my dad show me the basic rules andf i couldnt stpo playing since. i was very good at 8 and at 10 hardly anyone that i new could beat me. since then i was avoiding books about chess, was avoiding to learn deeper stuff cause i didnt wanted to be 'infected' by the theory, by the memorization and shit. i still play chess every day on-line 'natively' and im proud to be 'pure' but i know that im gonna remain a mediocre player for the rest of my life cause of that and im in peace with that. 

 

now music. i was recorded on tape as a two yr-old singing complete songs... i was kind of a gifted as a kid but I've never learned musical theory cause i wanted to stay 'pure' as in chess. but i realized that iz's not the same... learning musical theory is like learning a new language while learning chess theory is like learning and memorizing an endless multiplication table; you can get away with memorizing 10x10 for pretty good results but it's much harder to live successfully in shanghai while relying just on your innate grammar. i'm totally sure that im gonna remain a mediocre composer/producer if i dont learn the theory, at least basics. i wouldn't need it for releasing on raster-noton tho but my greatest influence comes from classical composers 

 

also, the problem is that it doesnt matter at one point: beethoven said that he learned nothing after years of training with hayden. what do you think he was talking about?

Edited by xox
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Ah, OK, I appreciate you clarifying that. Yeah I was definitely overreacting there, I misunderstood that you were just speaking from your own experience with chess and not trying to say you are better than people who don't know theory at all. It's just frustrating enough when trying to learn something and there's something about theory where 1) nobody can seem to explain it well (or simply, anyway) and 2) they claim that it helps hugely when writing music or melodies.

 

It's like there's this mountain out there with an infinite amount of gold at the top and if you just climb it you can have as much as you want. And people talk about this mountain but if you ask them how to get there they either speak in vague, un-search-able language, or they start talking something that makes 0 sense until you've studied mountain climbing for a year. There doesn't seem to be much of a happy medium of, say, here's how the transition between these chords work, here's what the hell it means when someone talks about the "center" note of a mode of a scale. Maybe it's just the nature of the beast because music is so subjective.

 

Learning about synthesis and effects is a piece of cake, there's tons of knowledge and great help and tutorials out there. Same with code, that's harder but any decent language or library you can figure out from staring at the docs long enough, or just playing with it, building stuff, so it's just a matter of putting the time in. Even learning Japanese is a gigantic pain in the ass, but you can easily find specific information about kanji, conjugation, grammar, whatever. But with music theory it just seems like so much work and people can't talk about exactly what it does for you, specific examples of how theory helps you build things.

 

But it could just be a difference in mental wiring too or just my exposure to it. I don't know. It sounds like you are in a similar situation, actually, just probably (a lot) further along.

 

Anyway, I found this guide today and it looks helpful so far: https://kupdf.com/download/ravenspiral-guide-to-music-theory_595f1445dc0d60ef702be30c_pdf

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please explain microtuning to me! i've read so much things about it and i still don't figure out quite well what it is... not kidding btw! if i put the 12 notes of a whole scale out of tune one by one, am i microtuning? is that it? if so, an out of tune instrument is considered microtuned? lol i'm not fooling around!!! make an octave of 15 notes instead of 12? something like this? how to do it with a regular synth and piano roll???

Edited by THIS IS MICHAEL JACKSON
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I think microtuning is using the same types of relationships between intervals of notes and scales but on a sub-semitone basis. The problem with this is that it's even harder to make sound good because there are too many people who want to use it but not enough people that have the ear or knowledge of how to do it correctly. I would like to learn it too but I have a hard enough time figuring out what notes, chords and scales work well together as whole notes as is.

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please explain microtuning to me! i've read so much things about it and i still don't figure out quite well what it is... not kidding btw! if i put the 12 notes of a whole scale out of tune one by one, am i microtuning? is that it? if so, an out of tune instrument is considered microtuned? lol i'm not fooling around!!! make an octave of 15 notes instead of 12? something like this? how to do it with a regular synth and piano roll???

As far as I know, that's it, lol. BUT there's a lot more you can do with that. For example dividing the octave based on harmonics (just intonation) instead of equal intervals (equal temperament like your standard 12-note Western octave). Or stuff like this Wendy Carlos...

 

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2j1gy2

 

51-note octave if I remember right. Sorry for DailyMotion but I guess this isn't on YouTube.

 

And here's some Terry Riley with some just intonation piano which sounds gorgeous to my ears.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iinw91AVpMg

Certain chords sound impossibly beefy in JI because the harmonics line up instead of getting muddy like we're used to hearing.

 

Also Aphex Twin has done this quite a bit throughout his career. And Balinese gamelan and pelog use 7 and 5 note octaves, respectively.

 

There are really weird convoluted ways to do it with a regular synth, usually involving pitch bend. Some of the old Yamaha FM synths provide a way to do this, and the Korg Monologue can also do it, either a custom 12-note octave or even the entire keyboard.

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