Somebody that doesn’t know music theory may think that composition is complex. Indeed, there are tons of scales, chords, and strange terms, learning all of this must be hard and take forever. Don’t worry, once you have the logic, you realize that is really simpler than it looks.
Long music studies are useful for a deep understanding classical music (symphonies, operas …) or for music research. But to compose like Paul McCartney, it requires a lot of creativity and a little knowledge. This blog aims to bring you this “little knowledge”.
How to write a melody?
A melody is a succession of notes that aims to sound musically great to the ear. In opposition to a melody made of notes played one after the other, harmony refers to notes played simultaneously. To create a melody, we won’t pick the notes randomly from the 12 existing notes on a keyboard. We will pick those notes from a “family of notes” called a scale. In a nutshell, notes from a scale sound well together.
Example: Using the notes from the C major scale (C D E F G A B C):
You can create this melody:
Hey, wait… it’s Let it be from The Beatles!!!
One important thing, there isn’t one thousand scales to know. The majority of songs can be made with only two: a major scale and a minor scale. The vast majority of melodies are composed in major or minor (sometimes with some variations from minor and major scales but close from them, I will talk about that in another lesson)
Why only two? There are there are a lot of scales!
It is true that there are many major scales that note (C major scale, C # major scale, D major scale, etc …) but to compose, we only need to choose one of them once and for all (and it’s the same for the minor scale). A melody played in the key of C can also be played in the key of E. That is why it makes things a lot simpler to compose all songs in the same key and to eventually change it once the song is done. That really matters is the color of the scale.
Example: A melody in C major:
The same melody in E major:
What is the difference between a major scale and a minor scale?
Major and minor scales have a different “color”, it means that they sound different. Major scales are said to sound “happy” and minor scales that sound “sad” or dark.
I have put quotation marks because it is not absolutely true, it is possible to compose songs with a major scale that sound sad and songs with a minor scale that sound cheerful. For example, the song “Happy” from Pharell Wiliams is in Minor and Hallelujah from Leonard Cohen is in Major.
Saying “sad” and “happy” is just an approximate way to express how the scales sound. I would prefer to say that major sound straightforward, down to earth, direct. And minor sound subtle, questioning, uncertain. (it’s my personal point of view).
Let’s listen to them:
The C major scale:
The C minor scale:
There are not only scales that can be major or minor. This is also the case for chords.
The C major chord:
The C minor chord:
You probably can feel the difference. With a little practice, it is not hard to determine if a melody is minor or major.
It is totally possible to play a minor song in a major scale and vice versa, there are tons of remake on youtube, here are some of them:
- The Beatles – All You Need Is Love
- The Beatles – Let It Be
- Bob Dylan – Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
- Leonard Cohen – Halleluja
- Bob Marley – No Woman No Cry
- The Eagles – Hotel California
- The Rolling Stones – Angie
- Oasis – Wonderwall
- Guns N’ Roses – Don’t Cry
- Led Zeppelin – Stairway To Heaven
Why a major and minor scale sound different?
The color of a scale is given by the pitch difference that is between each note.
The following pictures indicate if there is a whole step (1) or a half step (1/2) between the notes:
What minor and major scale will we choose?
The simplest solution is to use the two most common scales:
The C major scale: C D E F G A B C
and the A minor scale: A B C D E F G A (also called “natural” minor scale)
Why these two scales specificely? There are two reasons for that:
1. They are the easiest scales to use because they correspond to the white keys of a keyboard, there is no # and no♭. Keyboards have actually been designed so the white keys correspond to these two scales.
2.These two scales are relative to each other, every major scale has a relative minor scale, it means that they are complementary (it is like complementary colors in painting). It is easy to switch between two complementary scales. Indeed, major and minor complementary scales are made from the same notes.
Now you should wonder: “How 2 scales can be different if they are made from the exact same notes?”.
The answer is that the role of each note will be different depending on the scale. In the C major scale, the C note is the first note (the root note) of the scale, the melody will often go back to this note. For the A minor scale, the A note is the root note, C is the 3rd note of the scale. I won’t go more into details now, another article will be dedicated to the role of the notes on a scale.