How to Approach Writing Melodies by Ear

How to Approach Writing Melody by Ear

Most all music programs teach reading skills that involve playing an instrument. This produces a student that can read, but rarely can create music without resorting to the manuscript of the music. A written manuscript contains the information about what note to play, how long to play it and the other notes that support the melody.

Music readers are very intelligent and can learn to play with great skill.  The performance is dependent of the reading skills mastered by the player. 

Music can be thought of as a language that developed long before the skills of notation came about. Today we have more written manuscripts than ever dreamed possible. We are fortunate to have these written works of musical geniuses, but playing and speaking the language of music share, but don’t originate from the same set of skills.

Writing melodies by ear is normal because,  our ears preferences are a product of the nurture of western culture. The biggest setbacks I had in my  studies of music was not in reading, but in fluently speaking the language and writing my thoughts down.

The Sounds in my head go Around and Round

Music is not about good or bad, but about what we prefer to hear. Past composers notate the songs that are influenced by the music he/she has heard. All composers borrow ideas from others, making them their their own brand.  There is nothing entirely new, because repetition is essence of song form.

If we are to play or write a melody from our mind, through an instrument or transcribed to paper, we must consider the environment of that idea. The scale or palate of notes that the melody frames are clues to understanding and essential to communication of artistic ideas.  It is important not to pick or hunt for the notes on our instrument one by one, but consider their relationships to each other. Guessing at the notes is like measuring a book with a half inch stick, errors are likely skew the math. It is better to have a full sized ruler. Having a scale is like having a ruler.

Every scale has an emotionally charged palate of pitches that set up the character of the ruler. The first ruler we are going to use is a short, 4 note type. The sounds on this tool produce the character of the melody line and two of these 4 note stems make up an 8 note scale.

Should I be Concerned About Perfect Pitch?

It would be great to hear a random pitch and say, “Oh, that’s an ‘E-flat’ and be correct, but that’s a gift that very few are born with. You cannot develop this sensitivity to sound. Absolute pitch is not a learned skill, but Relative pitch can be acquired.

Learning ‘Relative Pitch’ is not very hard to master. The ear should not stress itself to hear intervals. Learning to label notes as by the distance they span from the resting pitch must come naturally. By memorizing small scale steps about 5 minutes a day, we can improve our ears dramatically. I will suggest an order to learn these intervals that will make larger type intervals simple to master by stacking smaller half and whole ones.

Labeling the small intervals will help us recall and strenghten these fundamental tools through our 5 minute practice . These are terms that are similar to ‘half and whole’ or ‘step and skip’, but to musicians, they are called ‘major and minor’ and ‘second and third’.

Do I use the Piano or Guitar for Testing?

You can use an instrument in confirming your pitch, but in playing the notes and then saying the interval is not testing your ears. It is best to have a partner whom is trained know notes and intervals to give you feedback.

Now, I taught piano for 35 years and during that time my ears did not improve but exposure alone.  I did memorize all the studies in the ‘Faber and Faber piano series, but my ears did not change. For 5 minutes a day you will need to listen to the pitches and compared them to your ‘Key Note’. Label the sound you hear so you will know it by name when you hear it again.

The process for ear training is about listening to a reference note (the key) and a different pitch, then assign a label that define the interval (space) between the notes.

To start, pick a medium-low pitch that you can sing comfortably. This note is your Key note ‘Do’.  I use solgège terms because the actual pitch names are confusing.

Lesson One: Get your 'Key Note'

I am using colors to help describe scale degrees because color and pitch frequencies have a lot in common. This, ‘Key Note’ is your personal pitch. It is the home or resting note we call ‘Do’. We will start with this (key note), whatever pitch it is. We will call it ‘Do‘ (from solfège syllables). From ‘Do‘ we will go up a whole step, to ‘RE‘. ‘Do‘ is considered the ‘Key‘. The interval of a repeated note is called a ‘Perfect Unison (P1)‘, like a unicycle has one wheel. Associating the interval label to it’s sound is very important!

I will offer a sample song to help you hear this interval. Sing, Hap-py Birth-day. Do it again and again – then the same pitches we’ll sing, ‘DO DO REDO— ‘. Now forget about the song and sing ‘DO DO RE– DO–‘. I do not recommend singing songs to find various intervals, because they are rarely in the key that your song is in. Just remember the interval sound and it’s label and not the song hint.

DO to RE is a called a ‘Major 2nd‘. These two notes are 2 out of 12 pitches we will learn. I myself start here every time I take my 5 minutes to practice. Always review what you have learned previously, before adding something new.  Repetition will improve your progress.

Lesson Two: 'Key Note' & Review Lesson 1

Remember to: always warm-up by reviewing previous intervals and their labels. Your success will indicate if proceeding to the next level is wise. When everything goes well, then you can advance to the next lesson.

The next step is appending another whole step to the ‘Major Second’ we learned in lesson one.

This will be sung:
DoRe‘ then the next Major Second ‘RE-MI’.
Sing: ‘DoRe, ReMi‘, then sing: ‘DoMi‘, (skipping note ‘Re‘). You can use the song crutch from ‘The Sound of Music’. DO– a deer– a female deer. In Solfège: DoRe Mi, Do MiDo Mi-. Now ‘DoMi‘ is a ‘Major 3rd.

Sing ‘DO-RE’ (a Major 2nd) and ‘DO-MI’ (a Major 3rd). Now we know our Key note ‘DO’, a Major 2nd ‘DO-RE’, a Major 3rd ‘DO-MI’ They are 3 out of 12 pitches – which is 3/12ths (1/4th) of our way.

Have your teacher or learning partner test your ear’s memory or use an app. Play a Reference note (your Do) then play the test interval.  Is it a Major 2nd or Major 3rd?

Lesson Three: Review Lesson 1 & 2

What is Solfège?

The next interval we will learn to hear will be the 4th.
The Perfect 4th is an interval that is neither Major nor Minor.

The interval or distance from ‘DoFa‘ is called a
‘Perfect 4th’
. Along with two other ‘Perfect’ intervals they support the 2rd, 3rd, 6th and 7th members of major and minor scales. 

The next step is adding another whole step to the ‘Major Second‘ we learned in lesson one. This will be sung: ‘DoRe‘ then the next Major Second ‘ReMi‘. Sing: ‘DoRe, ReMi‘, then sing: ‘DoMi‘, (skipping note ‘Re‘). You can use the song crutch from ‘The Sound of Music’. Do— a deer– a fe-male deer. In Solfege: DoReMi, DoMi, DoMi. Now ‘DoMi‘ is a ‘Major 3rd’.

Sing ‘DoReMi^Fa. Now we know our Key noteDo‘, a Major 2ndDoRe‘, a Major 3rdDoMi‘ and ‘DoFa‘ a Perfect 4th.  This is 4 out of 12 pitches – which is 1/3rd of the 12 notes.

Lesson Four: The 4 Note Tetrachord

The 4 note scale we learned in Lesson #3 is not a chord as in harmony, but a form of a short scale of 4 notes.  The Perfect 4th is an interval that is neither Major nor Minor. The interval or distance from ‘DoFa‘ is called a ‘Perfect 4th’. Along with two other intervals ‘Perfect Intervals’ supporting members of scales. We add a half step above our Major 3rd to reach this interval. Our step up formula is now ‘Do‘ (home) ‘Re‘ (Major 2nd) ‘Mi‘ (Major 3rd) plus a 1/2 step (Perfect 4th).

This is a TETRACHORD. To sing a ‘tetrachord’ is the first half of a scale formula. The one that uses:

Do (Whole) Re (Whole) Mi (Half) Fa is a MAJOR TETRACHORD. It is the first half of a Major Scale.

The Half Step (or Semitone) is like the first two notes of ‘JAWS’. Sing MiFa, MiFa , MiFa (faster and faster, then Chomp!

Now sings the TETRACHORD scale: DoReMi ^ Fa [STOP] I used the dash (-) for whole step and carrot (^) for half.
We now have 4 notes mastered out of the 12 pitches available. 4 out of 12 = 1/3rd of our way through all the pitches we need.

Music is Energy and Frequency; and Math

When we see the color red, we can tell others that, “We see red”. When we see yellow, we say, “it is yellow”.  Sound recognition does not have an immediate response. When we hear an “A” (440 Hz), We are at a loss to describe exactly what note the pitch is.

This is because the ear doesn’t categorize pitches the same way the eye recognizes color, the listener needs a reference pitch to compare it to (unless the person has perfect or absolute pitch). I find it interesting that the ear doesn’t do this internally. As we get older we lose the high end of our hearing. The eyes interpret colors in the brain and are influenced by our environment. We are easily deceived. The ear doesn’t have internal references that makes this pitch recognition automatic. We must given a reference note first and then determine the new pitch. This is called, “Relative Pitch”.

The Hi-Fidelity audio standards set the minimum and maximum frequencies from 20Hz to 20,000Hz. As we get older we lose the high end of our hearing range.

The Math of Music Supports the Theory

Unless you have Absolute pitch, the ear doesn’t have internal references that makes the pitch recognition automatic. We must listen carefully to song’s structure and determine the resting note or key it grounds to.

The Greek Philosopher/ Mathematician, Pythagoras divided frequencies into ratios that give us a better handle on pitch. The system points to a ‘Base 12’ design.

We have many Base 12 systems:

  • The number of inches in a foot. (12)
  • The number of months in a year. (12)
  • The number of eggs in a dozen. (12)
  • The number of digets on a clock. (12)
  • The number of notes within an octive. (12)

Here are the 12 notes using first 7 letters ‘A to G’ of the alphabet and 5 half steps:

A (A#/Bb) B C (C#/Db) D (D#/Eb) E F (F#/Gb) G (G#Ab)
1     2        3 4      5       6      7      8  9     10     11    12

The Twelve Tones  are all the notes in a ‘register’. Registers repeat the 12 tones 7 and a 1/3rd times on a piano to create the musical range of 88 notes.

Music is Science and Math

Pitches are frequencies. The ‘A’ pitch is represented by multiples of 440Hz this is the standard frequency used for tuning instruments. There are 8 ‘A’s on a piano. From 440Hz, 880Hz, 1760Hz going up and 220Hz, 110Hz, 55Hz, etc. going down.

I do not use note names or frequencies in ear training, but I use the 7 solgége syllables and the 5 flat or sharp designations to represent any key. This method releaves you from having to learn 12 different keys times 12 pitches or 144 combinations

The interval of a Perfect 5th is:  DoSo

The horns in “Chariots of Fire” or the 4th and 5th notes of “Star Wars” So So So Do– So–.
So‘ is the starting note for the 2nd stacking Tetrachord in lesson five. Learn the sound.

Lesson Five: Building on 'DO' and 'SO'

Remember the first 4 notes of a scale is a TETRACHORD. We made a Major Tetrachord, because the steps between the Perfect Unison and the Perfect Fourth are Major Intervals. If we start again with the Perfect Fifth and go to the Perfect Octave by repeating the same formula of Major Intervals we have two Major Tetrachords stacked, starting on ‘Do‘ unison and ending on ‘Do‘ octave. Let’s look at the formula for stacking two Major Tetrachords:

Do + (Maj. 2nd) + (Maj. 3rd) + Fa  
Do    –     Re       –       Mi      ^    Fa 

So + (Maj. 6th) + (Maj. 7th) + Do
So    –     La       –        Ti      ^   Do

Singing (Do Re Mi Fa) then the same Major Tetrachord sound starting on So, will give you a Major Scale.

Try it and  hear that Do, Re, Mi, Fa and So, La, Ti ,Do are the same intervals sung twice.


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