Kpopalypse is back with the latest post in the music theory series! Read on for musically-oriented caonima action!
In the previous episode of this series I talked about melody writing but only in terms of rhythm, or in other words “vocal meter”. I covered this aspect first as rhythm is by far the most important aspect of any kind of melodic writing in pop music. However that’s not to say that harmony and melodic choice isn’t also important, so I’m going to cover these aspects now.
This is probably also the first post in this series which is going to be a bit beyond the standard curriculum and is going to tell you some things that you won’t learn in anybody else’s music theory class. After all these would be no point in me even writing any of this shit at all if it was just shit you could get elsewhere, so this is going to become a very “Kpopalypsian” take on how to write melody. I’ll ease you into this type of thing though, so this post will be a shortish one in keeping with this series not wanting to hit you with too much stuff at once so you can get back to stanning your faves.
So, if you’re familiar with music theory, or you’re familiar with this series, you’re familiar with the concept of harmony, expressed through chords. You will also know that the most common type of chord is the “triad”, which basically means “a chord with three notes in it”. You may have also wondered at some point – “well, why is three the most common? Is that just some arbitrary number?”
When harmony first appeared in classical music it was in the context of vocal groups – either choirs or other small singing ensembles. Vocal parts would be divided up into up to four sections, those being soprano, alto, tenor and bass, so singers of varying vocal ranges all had a part that they could sing comfortably. Then each singer would be given separate melodies that would “harmonise” (sound nice together). This is where the accursed “cadences” come from, that all music theory students have to learn by about “third grade” music theory in AMEB (Australian Music Examination Board) or whatever your country’s equivalent is.
Cadences are the algebra of music, in two ways: firstly, when students hit them it quickly sorts out the people who can understand advanced concepts from those who can’t, and secondly, because it’s almost guaranteed that anything you actually do in the real world of music (or math) during the course of post-academic life is not going to ever need this crap. As it’s such useless knowledge, I’m not going to discuss cadences further here, but it’s useful to bring up the idea of them for one reason – the concept of thinking about harmony as melody. So, instead of thinking about the above as V-I or G Major to C Major, we can think about it as a group of four independent melodies, shown here with colour codes:
This is in fact how the early composers viewed it – as separate distinct melodies, or “counterpoint”. They were concerned about the note choice, how each voice moved from one note to the next, and also the amount of space between different voices – the “interval”. There were all sorts of rules about what was considered good and bad movement, this is why “parallel fifths” will make you fail your AMEB cadence exam even though parallel fifths are literally all over a huge amount of post-Classical era music, it was considered a too-harsh sound for the era. However they didn’t conceptualise their harmony as chord voicings because the concept of the “chord” hadn’t actually been invented yet, the chord was actually a concept that came afterward to explain their most common note choice preferences.
The idea of the “chord” really solidified when the piano became the dominant instrument for composition, because when drafting a song it’s so easy to throw the bottom three voices in the bass register and have the left hand play those while the right hand focuses on the top melody – it’s a really convenient way of conceptualising writing and motor-wise it’s also relatively easy to execute, rather than trying to work your brain around “four melodies at once”. As a result most modern music is written with a keyboard instrument and written “chordally”, and there’s really no need to understand or pay heed to any ancient counterpoint rules when writing songs these days. A future post will cover counterpoint in more detail, for now, we just want to know how melodies fit over chords.
Even though counterpoint practices are no longer in use broadly, the above is still relevant for this reason: once you understand that a sequence of chords actually is a collection of melodies, then this changes how you think about writing a melody over the top of chords. When you write melodies over a chord sequence, you’re not actually writing anything new, rather you’re highlighting different parts of the material that’s already there, and by this, choosing what notes have more importance.
Let’s have a look at a k-pop example – in this case, we’ll use the hook in Twice’s “Dance The Night Away”, as it’s a fairly simple and quick four-chord progression with an upbeat melody that follows fairly typical pop songwriting conventions. Here’s the original video with the song:
Here’s a piano transcription of the song played through the computer, so you can get a good sense of how the notation matches the music:
Now the song has four chords:
F major, which contains the notes F, A and C
G minor, which contains the notes G, Bb and D
Bb major, which contains the notes Bb, D and F
C major, which contains the notes C, E and G
Now I’m going to go through and highlight all the notes in the melody line that match the chords below them, where they appear, in blue.
Out of a melody with fourteen notes in it (remember the groups of tied notes count as one note each), only five notes are not notes that are already in the chords. We can see that notes that are already within the chord structure really have prominence in this melody – for the most part, the melody is doing nothing but spelling out the chords.
Note that the song has some odd rhythm with the second chord Gm and fourth chord C both starting half a beat early. When these changes happen, the melody notes that happen at the same time match the old chord but not the new chord, so that early chord change in the rhythm creates a little bit of a sonic clash each time it happens. For instance, the F note which is the fourth note of the melody is in the chord F major (obviously) but is not in the chord G minor. However, in each case, these notes resolve upward to other notes that do match the new chord. Let’s colour these “late changing” notes in orange.
There’s two other notes in the piece which are what I call “passing” notes, these are notes that are outside the chord, but used as a stepping stone to travel between other notes that are within the chord. For instance the first three notes in the melody are F, G and A. G isn’t in the F major chord, but F and A are, and the G sounds fine as a passing note in between because it’s surrounded by other notes which fit the chord perfectly. I’ll mark the passing notes in pink.
Now there’s one more note at the very end, which is the very last F. This exists because the melody plays around in the loop, so it resolves to the F at the start. The F at the end clashes against the chord of C major, which contains no F, but then that melody note stays the same (repeats) while the chord underlying it changes to F major, which gives the melody a nice feeling of “coming home” when it wraps back around to the start. This technique of starting with a off-chord melody note that then turns into an on-chord note by virtue of not the note changing but the chord underneath it changing, is called a “suspension” and “resolution”. I’ll colour the “suspended note” in red.
Now we have the full anatomy of a catchy melody: the vast majority of the notes in the melody just match the chords underneath them, and those that don’t are either just a stepping stone between two notes that do, or are resolved in some way so they quickly match up again. That’s essentially the key to writing good melody. Of course you don’t want every note to be in the chord all the time because that’s just boring, but keeping anything “outside” the chords lighter in content works best for pop music.
To underline the importance of chord notes in a melody, let’s play the melody but with all the non-chord notes removed.
As you can hear, it definitely now doesn’t sound as good, but it does still sound more or less identifiable as the song, just a somewhat blander and crappier version.
Now let’s listen again, this time with only the non-chord notes and nothing else:
As you can hear, now it sounds like fucking ass. It’s not really identifiable as related to the original song at all. The fact that none of the notes are related to the chords around them gives the song a really uncomfortable feeling. Now “comfort” of course isn’t the goal of every song ever, and if you did want to make the listener feel a bit strange deliberately, constantly avoiding chord notes is one way to do it – however in a pop song making people feel gradually physically ill generally isn’t the aim.
So in summary – if you want your melody to not suck:
- Stick to notes that are in the chord that’s playing, most of the time
- When using notes outside, use them to quickly travel to other notes that are inside the chord
- Unless you want to fuck with people in which case, do whatever, but don’t expect it to be popular
That’s all for this post! The music theory series will return!