"Songwriting and the Creative Process"
An Internet Tutorial

Lesson 10. Intervals and Melody

Intervals are the backbone of melody. The combinations of intervals and their relationship melodically and harmonically are what make a song recognizable and memorable.

There are only a limited number of these intervals and yet, they have been combined in thousands of creative ways and each of these songs is recognizable. Some are so distinctive that the song can be named after hearing only two or three notes.

Harmony can be described as the vertical distribution of intervals, stacked one above the other, and melody as the horizontal placement of intervals.

The one other factor that determines melody is time. Each note has a duration and the spaces between the notes have duration and it is the combination of these that gives us a melody.

Motif or Motive

Often strong melodies are created with phrases or groups of phrases called "motives" or "motifs". In many cases these motive phrases are altered slightly in repetition or shift in their timing or emphasis. Sometimes phrases are even inverted to create portions of the melody that seem to reflect or answer other parts of the melody

In the song, "Fly Me To the Moon", the unique melody is actually made up by linking certain five note phrases. Each starts high and ends low, but each starts on a different note.

The first note of each phrase is emphasized partly by the length of the note and partly emphasized by leaping up from the previous note. This song is a good example of a repeating motive.


Echoes and repetition are very common devices in melody. So much so that you probably wouldn't notice many of the ways that they are used.

"Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away," is an example of one form of repetition. Different notes are used but each group of three notes is similar in that the first is emphasized falling on a strong beat, and the other two are lower and double up on the same note.

In the song, "Stand By Your Man", the repetition effect is used in a different way. The phrase that is repeated comes later after a few notes to set it up. The repetition in turn sets up the cadence at the mid point of the verse, and later the same effect is used to build to the ending of the song.

In a more subtle way, the linking phrases are themselves repetitions of the pattern established by the "hook" phrase. Think of the song as made up of two phrases, da, da, da, dum, as in bars one and three, and daa, di, da, da, as in bars four and six.

Melodic skips

Melodic skips or leaps can be used to create strong and recognizable melodies. By using leaps of larger intervals in contrast to movement by adjacent single notes, we can bring a certain excitement into our melody writing.

This is another one of those balancing acts since every song is a matrix of tones and textures and has a cumulative effect on the listener. This effect is most satisfying when it's tasteful and not too heavy-handed.

There are many good examples of leaps and skips to be found and they may come from all types of music. Some follow regular patterns like the notes of a chord as in the folk songs, "Kum Ba Ya", and "Michael Row the Boat Ashore". Others take chances by leaping to a radical or unstable interval, like "Maria" from "West Side Story", or "Born Free".

In "Maria" the second note is so striking, leaping up as it does to such an unexpected place. This interval is an augmented fourth, a very unstable interval, it is a note that holds a certain amount of tension. It "wants" to resolve. In this case, it wants to resolve upward by a half step to the fifth and come to rest in a nice comfortable major chord.

This course is based on materials from the book, "Songwriting and the Creative Process" by Steve Gillette. Published by Sing Out! Press. Used by permission.

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