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 create 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 (like chords).
To create a melody, we won’t pick the notes randomly from the 12 existing notes for western music.
We take those notes from a “family of notes” called a scale. In a nutshell, notes from a scale sound well between each other.
In a nutshell, notes from a scale sound well between each other.
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. A lot of things can be done 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 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 simpler to compose all songs in the same key and to eventually change it once the song is done.
Example: A melody in C major:
The same melody in E major
What is the difference between a major scale and a minor scale?
The major and the minor scale are considered as having a different “color”, it just 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. Saying “sad” and “happy” is just an approximate way to express how the scales sound. Let’s listen to it:
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:
Now 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)
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 relatives, each major scale has a relative minor scale, it means 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 in a scale.