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Using Scales: Tension and Release
Me again , I first of all want to thank everyone for helping me with my other posts. I'm sorry for not replying to some of them, but just want to know that your time was not wasted. I print out all responses and put them in my folder
To my new question. I have been having trouble writing melodies over chords, I have gotten into the habit of writing melodies in isolation, and they sound very good (at least to me, lol). But whenever I have an interesting chord progression or succession, I cant seem to generate the same melodic lines that I do when I'm just writing them on their own. I think part of my problem is that I don't understand how to use scales properly, so I was thinking long and hard about what I could be missing and I thought back to tension and release. Which lead me to asking, what degrees/notes are tense and which form a repose? Then I thought back to the degrees in relation to the chords, it makes sense to me that they would change depending on the context. Thus, for the tonic chord, would the 1, 3 and 5 degree be consonant? Or would the 1, 4 and 5? And which would be tense and relaxed for the chords of the other degrees? I hope I'm achieving clarity here :s If I'm not making any sense, I'll try explain again. I'm trying to get inside how to use scales rather than just throw in scales and modes mindlessly, am I onto something? I'll appreciate any help a lot.
Thank-you all again
This is an interesting question with a lot of possible answers. The key is not to get too bogged down in analysing the system itself, but to analyse what sounds good. Of course the most direct way is to learn lots of tunes, which I would allways reccomend, however, I will try to answer your question on a purely theoretical level here.
Originally Posted by ZuruiChibi
There are basically two outlooks you can use to get a good view of the problem. Functional & relative (or modal). Lets look at a basic, loopable chord progression to get an idea: C-Am-Dm-G
This is looking at which notes have a function against the chord of the moment whatever that may be. So over the C chord the notes C, E, G sound consonant/rested (you correctly identified them as 1,3,5). The remaining chords have similar tones which sound rested against them:
Of course chords needn't be as simple as these triads I am using, and extended chords follow similar guidelines. So over the C chord, a B note can sound good in a jazz context. Extensions can keep adding notes to the chord and the right way to consider it is that chord tones sound consonant against the chord of the moment (obviously!).
Over a given chord you don't have to use only those notes which are consonant though. If its not a chord tone, it could sound either tense (in a good/useful way) or just bad (in an unuseable way). This is where scales come in. Imagine you played the C major scale over all of the chords above (notice all the chord tones for all our chords are in the C major scale, so this bodes well for hitting consonant chord tones). If you played the C major scale over the Dm chord you would be creating the following intervals against the chord:
1, 2, m3, 4, 5, 6, b7: In modal terminology this is the dorian mode.
Now, is this scale the only one which could sound good over the Dm chord? No! The chord tones are there of course, but they could be there in a lot of other scales (any with a 1, m3 & 5).
I notice you use the terms tension/resolution. These terms generally have meaning only in functional terms, not in modal ones. What creates tension/resolution? The way I understand it is that tension & resolution are to do with chords and how they change & flow. In the above, modal section, we didn't think at all about each chord's relationship with the next, previous, or final, did we? It was just about what sounds good over a certain chord. Thats great if we just hang on that certain chord for a long period of time (and this can produce some interesting music) but tension/resolution are not a part of it. In modal thinking there is only consonance/disonance.
Consonance/disonance = the two extreme poles when things stand still.
Tension/resolution = the two extreme poles when things move.
So when you are thinking functionally you are not thinking "hmm, the B note sounds nice over this G chord", but instead you are thinking "hmm, the B note sounds nice over this tense chord, and it accentuates the tension, which will then be released when I slide it up to C".
Harmonising melodies (for most people) produces better results than adding melody to an established harmony. Of course it is possible to add melody to a harmony and this is what we often do when we solo over a band or backing track. To improve in this field, you need to look at the chords & their tones most importantly. Then you need to think about how your lines move as the chords change to create the best functional impact.
Section for embittered bastards
Modal thinking is like sitting in a candy shop. There are lots of interesting things to try out. Some work together, some don't.
Functional thinking is like riding a roller-coaster. Its kind of all the same (goes forward, and oscillates between excitement & rest [or tension/resolution if you will]).
You need to have a good handle on both views to get the desired results because either one in isolation can make you very very sick.
Functional terminology is a little more obscure, but the actual implementation of it, if anything, is simpler. I suggest you do a bit of internet research on functional harmony and ask more specific questions.
The Riff Master
When writing a melody over a given chord progression the best place to start is with the chord tones contained in the chords, for the most part these will be fairly consonant. A lot of it depends on what type of chords you are using and how long each chord last for, one per measure or two per measure or so on.
When you go to chose a note for your melody ask yourself what is the relationship between this note and the chord. For example is it a chord tone or is it an upper extension of the chord, a chromatic note that will resolve to a chord tone, or just some random note that I threw in for no good reason. Will this note clash with any of the notes in the chord, that is to say will it form a dissonant interval such as a b9 with a chord tone.
Also how does your progression end, does it end on the tonic chord or another chord. If it ends on the tonic chord then you could end your melody with an authentic cadence.
How does it start, once you get the starting and ending points figured out then you can add in the middle.
There are several different techniques that you could use such as you could use passing notes in between two chord tones, you could use chromatic approach notes, neighboring notes and so on to help tie the chord tones of the chords together to make a good melody.
Also look at songs that you like with a good melody and chord progression in them and see how they are constructed, what makes them work so well.
You could write a progression in the key of C major for example and think well I'll just use the C major scale for the melody but that would be a hit or miss thing if you don't target chord tones and just randomly use the notes in any order. Start with the chord tones and then fill in the blanks with what sounds good to you.
The above (excellent) advice notwithstanding, I think your problem is simply trying to write melodies from chords in the first place.
Originally Posted by ZuruiChibi
You say you have no trouble with melodies in isolation. So why not stick with that method and work that way round? Melody first, chords second: harmonise your melody with appropriate chords. Many composers would say that's the best way to go anyway.
The point is that a melody IS the song. Let that lead you, and the chords should fall into place. There may still be many options for harmonising the tune, but the tune is the constant thread that controls the process. It's the plan, the template you follow.
A good melody will imply a particular scale, and typically the chords will be drawn from the same scale, but you can still make certain alterations here and there, to create more interesting voice-leading (just look at the closest notes in the next chord, see if there are other ways of getting there).
When you start with a chord sequence - however good it is - a melody could be almost anything. A chord sequence is not a song. (Many songs use similar sequences.) You can voice the chords in various different ways to suggest any kind of melody.
Typically the strongest melodic effect will come from the top notes of the chords. But even if you only use triads, each chord tone could lead (melodically) to any of three chord tones in the next chord - and that doesn't allow for passing notes or extensions. The permutations are endless. And constructing a chord sequence with no melody is hard for the same reason: why should chord (x) follow chord (y)? why is it better than chord (z)? Almost any chord can follow almost any other - you don't need to stick to diatonic sets, as long as chord tone leads to chord tone - and mostly they do. So what's going to guide you? What's the "plan"? Even in a diatonic series, there's no best order for the chords (only common cliche ones).
The only reliable way is to sing over your progression. Sing or hum a line that seems to fit, allowing your voice to rise or fall as it feels right - and also creating phrases of a length that feels right. If at any time it feels like the tune needs to go somewhere that doesn't fit the next chord - change the chord.
IOW, you will end up working from the melody anyway!
This isn't to say the two methods can't work in tandem. You don't need a full completed melody before you start adding chords. And you may like certain chord changes that then suggest melodic moves. But the melody has to rule.
Nobody sings chord progressions! They sing melodies.
Last edited by JonR; 10-13-2009 at 08:38 AM.
I feel one of the best ways to understand song writing is to study tunes.
There are plenty of great ones here.
http://www.realbook.us/getsongs_a.aspx (you will need to register to view them)
Just pick some simple songs and look at the kinds of chord progressions that are being used. Then look at the notes in the melody. Sometimes you will see a melody note is part of the chord and sometimes it will be an extension or even an alteration.
As to which approach sounds better is up to you. Learning songs is the best way to write them though. Sing your melodies too. Strum a chord and sing the first few notes of the melody, then hit the next chord and continue singing...
Is it melodic? If not why?
If you encounter a note that sounds wrong over a particular chord. Find out why it sounds bad.. Is it just flowing poorly or is there a certain dissonance. Such as a #9 over a major chord, which wouldn't sound too hot.
Sing sing sing. Play play play. Learn learn learn
Also. If you write a chord progression and have trouble making a melody. It can be useful to sing out the actual scales over each chord. While you do it, pay particular attention to the extensions. Such as E G and B over a Dm7. These are your 9 11 and 13th degrees. The extensions are what give a melody its colour so keep those in mind.
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