The Basics of Melody Writing | Exercise #1

Many of you have expressed interest in learning to write new tunes over standards changes, then taking those new tunes and writing charts on them.

I have wanted to get this going for quite a long time now, and I figured now was as good of time as any to just start somewhere.

Before we jumped right into writing full blown tunes over standards changes, or original tunes with original changes, I thought that covering a few basics may help class members if they have never written any melodies before.

The following tutorial covers just a few basics of what melodies are and how they are constructed. Its up to the imagination of the composer to use a combination of steps, skips and leaps to construct the best melody possible, so its really not an easy task and will take some practice.

Good melodies oftentimes outline chord changes so both melody writing and chord changes  go hand in hand to a certain extent, especially when writing tunes in certain styles (i.e. bepop tunes)

If you would like to try completing this exercise, download the PDF file of the sample melodies here.

Use the rhythms provided to compose the best melodies you can, then scan into PDF format and upload using the upload button below.   Class members can then learn from others’ mistakes and successes.  Depending on the response, I will try to post as many class member assignments as I can on this page. We’ll see what happens!

Print 6 stave manuscript paper here

Download melodic exercise in PDF here.   Write out your melodies, scan to PDF and upload below.   If you would like to put your name on the assignment, feel free to do so!  I will post and embed them on this page for other class members to learn from.

Upload your completed assignment using the uploader below.  When the file name turns green its done! (PDF format only please)

    Class Member Assignments

    Submitted by: Shane Kershaw

    Submitted by: Scanlarosa Music

    Submitted by: Joe Britton

    Submitted by: Wooly

    Submitted by: K.J Bowman (Revised)

    Submitted by: Bill Gidley

    The following is another submitted by a class member. The first example is not too bad, but there are some issues with the bebop example. Can you guess what they are? If so, leave comments below.

    Below is the melody I worked out over these rhythmic exercises. I added the chord changes AFTER I wrote the melodies. I definitely learned that writing a melody that works will inherently imply a basic chord progression to a certain extent.

    Notice for the 2nd phrase of the first example, I “modulated” temporarily to the relative minor (Ami) of the tune. This works well for an 8 bar phrase like this without having to change keys completely. Ami functions as the 6th chord (as does A7), and also is the relative minor to C Major.

    The bebop tune does the same thing in the 5th bar. I temporarily went to D minor before turning it back around to F major for the 2nd “8”. The second 8 bars would differ in the second phrase (2nd half) to bring the tune to a different key for the bridge.

    For those of you who didn’t add chord changes, try to see if what you wrote will fit a “typical” chord progression for a medium swing standard, or a bebop tune of the 40s.
    Submitted by: Jim Martin

    21 Replies to “The Basics of Melody Writing | Exercise #1”

    1. Rick

      Hiya, Jim

      Nice, no-nonsense tips for melody construction. I’ll attempt to use these with my own students (if you don’t mind).

      Thanks for sharing!
      ~ Rick

      State College, PA

    2. Jim Martin

      Hey Rick, they are basic, but something to think about. The combinations of steps, skips, and leaps are never-ending so the real art comes in combining them to make memorable tunes. One of the best I think is Over the Rainbow. That’s a classic of using leaps followed by steps to balance them out – all within a perfect octave.

    3. Shane Kershaw

      Thanks for another great lesson Jim – I reiterate these points again and again when teaching beginners myself, although I also include the idea of unisons as well – One Note Samba is a great example of the use of unison writing over chord progression.

    4. Jim Martin

      Thanks Shane. Yes, unisons can work but they are more dependent on the harmonic progressions behind them. Jobim was a master at harmony though. Very few tunes can survive on just one note like that tune can.

      I saw a few things in yours. Mind if I mark it up a bit and post here?

    5. Jim Martin

      Scanlarosa Music: Watch your quarter note triplet notation. The beams should not be connected. So in measures 1 and 5 of the first example, you actually only have 3 beats in the measures. Should be in 4/4 time.

      In the examples above: Be careful when outlining a tritone interval in the melody. Probably should be avoided if at all possible, especially if the interval is outlined by step and not resolved. Its a tricky interval to work with in a melody, and really needs to be resolved otherwise it sounds fairly weird.

      Also be careful of continual ascending or descending skips that go beyond an octave. Even though there are no chord changes in this excercise, a good melody should give a good indication of an underlying chord progression.

      Lastly, for bebop melodies, it is easier for a player to approach a triplet figure by half step, especially when ascending. Sounds smoother I think too. Descending not so much I think.

    6. Ron Bull

      I re-submitted my tune writing exercise since I forgot to include my name the first time. Unknown is now Wooly.

    7. Jim Martin

      Guys: I can’t embed anything but PDF files. PNG files won’t make it so whoever uploaded the PNG file, scan it to PDF and upload.

    8. Kevin Bowman

      Thanks for the refresher. I’ve been waiting all week to get a chance to sit down and write these out. Comments and criticism on my submission are welcome.
      – Kevin

    9. Bill Gidley

      Hi, Jim
      I just posted my assignment as “Gidley_melody_ex_1.pdf”
      Thanks for the lessons. I appreciate your time.

    10. Jim Martin

      Bill Gidley: Your chord progression in the first example (first 4 bars) is a little weak by simply moving up by step, then back down. 2nd phrase is not bad, but it would be nice to hear stronger cyclical changes that accentuate upper extensions of chords.

      Always being on the 3rd or 5th of the chord in a melody tend to make it sound kind of bland overall.

      In the 3rd measure of the first example, find an alternative to the repeated “B” in the melody.

      In the bebop tune, you have alot of repeated notes in the 2nd half of the melody. I think you could come up with moving lines that outline the changes better than just repeated notes in the 2nd half of the tune.

      The last 4 bars of the bebop tune could have these changes: F F7 | Bb Bbmi6 | Ami7 D7 | Gmi7 C7(b9) |

      That is what I mean by “cyclical”. That would be a typical “turnaround” progression in the bebop era. Let me know if you have any questions.

    11. Jim Martin

      R.J. Bowman: Sounds pretty good, and it would be nice to see you add chord changes to this example. The F at the end of the first example seems a little odd to me. The melody seems like it wants to go down (maybe to G) at that point, then back up. You have gone up a 10th from the beginning of the phrase, so maybe that’s what makes it sound like it should descend at that point.

      The 2nd measure of the bebop melody sounds to me like it should move to Bb, not up to D. By continually moving up, its not balancing itself out maybe.

      I would like to see chord changes put to this one to see if any other options would present themselves, especially in the bebop tune.

    12. Kevin Bowman

      Thanks for the comments, Jim. (BTW – it’s K.J.Bowman – my writing got a little sloppy). I’ve uploaded a revision with changes. Your points are well taken but I decided to stick with my original melody for the purpose of this exercise – I found that making a small change in one place necessitates a chain reaction down the line and I’d end up with completely different melodies!
      Now that I look closer at the changes in the bebop tune, the first two bars seem a little odd, not having a change in the second half of the bar …

    13. Laurent Rinaldi


      I can’t see the whole video, after a while it goes blank.
      Also, the sound is bad, pretty skippy.

    14. Jim Martin

      Laurent, no problems on my computer, and I’m using an older computer with Windows XP and Firefox. I boosted the sound when I made it and it should be fine. Have you upgraded your Flash lately? could be that lots of people were watching at the time you were, so a bandwidth issue.

    15. Laurent Rinaldi

      I’ve got the latest version of Flash. Again this morning, the video screen went blank after 1 minute. Could it be because I’m on a Mac ?

    16. Ulf Sandberg

      Jim,I wrote the last exercise, forgot to write my name.
      Some issues with the bebop tune would be that it is difficult to fit in chord changes.(I was thinking more in a “ornette Coleman style)I realize this might be outside of the assignment. I might redo it altogether.
      The chord changes for the first melody in C i think of as:
      Cmaj7,F7-5,Cmaj7,Em7 A7-9,Dm7 G7,Em7 A7-9,Dm7 G7,Dbmaj+11.
      Thank you for your comments.

      Ulf Sandberg

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