What makes a good melody?

I’ve been teaching some year 5 classes about melody recently, helping them to realise that good melodies don’t just happen by accident. It’s not that composers slavishly follow rules to compose memorable tunes, because most of the time, a good melody does present itself as if my magic. But there are certain truths I suspect which composers unconsciously tap into when they write a melody which is going to be remembered.

The first truth is about space. Not space as in the cosmos. But space within the melody, both in its timings and in the gaps between consecutive notes. Let me show you by quoting a well known melody – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star:

Look at the first three notes. The tune is played CCG. That leap between the C and the G of the third note is called an interval of a fifth – a perfect fifth if you want to be precise. It is found in countless pieces of music, and it gives a suggestion of scale, of importance. It’s there too in the theme to Star Wars:

So it’s important to leave spaces between the notes – not to just run up and down the scale. These gaps are important. They speak of something. If we look at the theme to Star Wars, they speak of strength, of adventure, of reaching for the skies. Look at where the melody goes next after those first two notes in Star Wars. The melody comes down three steps, as if it’s finding ground again, but it’s only so that it can build up the energy to launch into space, with that high C.

But you’ll notice too that not all the notes look the same – some are coloured in black, others have white innards. this tells a musician how long the sounds are. If Star Wars had notes all the same length, it would be a very tedious tune. In fact it wouldn’t even make much sense as a tune. The rhythmic timings – the spaces between one note sounding and the next, are what make a tune really captivating. You need both spaces of pitch (up and down space between consecutive notes) and spaces of duration (the length of time between different notes sounding.)

Let’s have another look at how a good melody makes use of pitch – the intervals or spaces between the notes. Somewhere over the Rainbow is a beautiful example of a finely crafted melody which, like Star Wars, tells its story through the tune as much as through the lyrics.

That’s a tune with spaces! That first gap between first and second notes is what we call an octave – a whole eight notes stretch. The melody is made up of a number of small phrases which constantly find their way upward. The effect of this is to give a yearning sense to the music – portraying perfectly Dorothy’s desire to escape from her humdrum existence and find what she dreams for. But even though every individual phrase is always questing upward, the actual shape of the whole tune is inexorably downward. Look at each bar. The direction within each is upward. But after that first huge leap in the first two notes, everything is basically travelling downward pitch-wise, bringing it back to the note it starts on. The effect of this is to ground the tune, just as Dorothy, as she sings the song, is still bound to her life in Kansas. The adventure she dreams of is just that – a dream.

There is another truth in the world’s best melodies. It’s simply this – once you’ve got an idea, repeat it. If something is worth saying, it’s worth saying twice, or three times. Look at Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – I’ve colour coded the phrases so you can see the repetition.

So there are two areas of repetition – the first line in its entirety is repeated as the final line, and the middle line (yellow) is itself a two part carbon copy. Do you want to know why this tune is so easy for children to learn? It’s because of the repetition. Our brains like order. They like to feel comfortable. And if they hear a tune which is then repeated, they think, “Oh I know this – I’ve heard it before” And it becomes what we call a hook, or an earworm – it gets in the brain without even trying.

What about the other two tunes I’ve looked at? Star Wars has a repeating phrase (yellow box), but the entire first line is itself repeated as the second line (red box).

Is this because John Williams was feeling lazy? Not at all – he’s a master melody-creator who knows that to create the sense of rightness and order which the human brain craves we need repetition.

And let’s have a look at the third example. The repetition in “Somewhere over the Rainbow” is less obvious, but it’s there – in the shape of the phrases. There are two building blocks, if you like. The first, picked out in yellow, is the yearning upward leap. The red phrases are the same shape every time – the starting note of the phrase drops three notes and then finds it’s way back up stepwise.

Don’t get me wrong – there are many wonderful melodies out there which don’t always reflect these truths, these needs for space and for repetition. But I’d hazard a guess and say that actually, they probably do, but they might hide it a little better. The next time you’re listening to a good tune, see if you can hear what I’ve been talking about – see if you can hear those leaps and spaces, those longer sounds interspersed with shorter ones. Those examples of repetition. Because good melodies don’t just happen.

The Gifts of the Pandemic

I was asked this morning what I consider to be the gifts to myself of the pandemic and resultant lockdowns this year. A strange question, to be sure. But not a ridiculous one. Many of us have found something important this year – maybe something we’d forgotten, or lost, has been rediscovered – like a love of walking through the woods in the evening. I’ve returned to charcoal drawing, and I’ve loved it.

Maybe for some of us, we’ve taken up a new hobby, learned a new skill. I’ve been trying my hand at wood engraving. Not a great success if I’m honest – but like all things worth doing, sometimes we have to work at it. Although I am wondering if I really have time to take up another creative venture – the composing and art already take a lot of my time when I’m not teaching.

So it’s not a ridiculous question. But it’s also not just about what we’ve done, or not done. It’s also about, for me, a chance to re-evaluate where I am going. To push the boundaries a little with my creativity, and to see where it takes me. I have a song to sing, and it’s not much use if I’m the only one hearing it.

The older I get, the more I realise my limitations. I will never be able to put up shelves straight. DIY is just not my thing. But I’m aware too of the limitations in my energy levels. I am a workaholic. I am utterly driven, so much so, that I become hugely depressed if I have got to the end of the day and I have achieved nothing, if I have ticked nothing off my todo list. But lately I’ve noticed that I just can’t keep pace with my self.

So I sense that the time is coming to begin to think about making some changes. Making more room in my life to do the things which give me life, and strip away the things which drain me. I don’t mind being tired, even exhausted, at the end of the day, if I’ve been creating. Because that’s a good exhaustion. That’s life affirming and ultimately energising. But all the other things which drain my time and energy? Including, dare I say it, teaching?

As I say, maybe it’s time to start looking at my options. I’m not as young as I once was, and it becomes increasingly difficult to lug crates of musical instruments around the school to make sure the kids are getting a good quality musical education. I love the kids – and they do give me huge return on my investment, but all the other stuff in education – lesson plans, inspections, assessments – they just drain. They give nothing back. If I could teach without those things, maybe it’s something I could still see myself doing in five years time. But at the moment, I can’t see it lasting.

That might seem negative. It might not seem like a gift at all. But sometimes gifts come in the shape of myrrh, as was the case in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. Myrrh was the spice used by the rich to embalm the dead. Maybe the gift of the pandemic to me, in the end, will be to force me to ask myself what needs to die, in order for me to live?

A John Williams Score for Every Year of My Life – 1975 Jaws

It has to be done. Whilst I am a great fan of the other score of 1975 which Williams wrote for “The Eiger Sanction”, I couldn’t not devote this blog entry to the stroke of absolute mastery which is Jaws.

As a teacher, I often use the theme from Jaws to illustrate how composers use dynamics, tempo and texture to build up tension in music. It’s amazing that almost every child I have ever taught, even from the age of 6, recognises this visceral music. I am quite sure that the vast majority of them have never seen the film. Maybe we can put that down to it’s use in the execrable “Baby Shark” (Please, if you’ve never heard of this, do not go and find it on Youtube – it will cause irreparable damage).

But that’s what this theme is all about. It is classic horror music, in that it tells the listener what is to come. It builds up from it’s creepy beginnings, building in volume and speed, adding layers of sounds on, until the tension is unbearable. The listener is left in no doubt that something huge is coming closer… and closer… And all from a piece of music which is little more than a two note ostinato.

It’s fascinating too to see the effect it has on a scene. Witness the title sequence from the film, but turn the sound down. It could very easily be a calm start to a documentary. Try it…

There are many such moments in the score, in which the famous theme is used to signal the presence of the shark, or the after-effects of that presence. One such example is in the piece called “Night Search” on the youtube playlist link at the top. The music is utterly beautiful, magical, full of tender harp glissandos and bubbling woodwinds, with the strings creating a sense of depth – this is after all an underwater search. About halfway through though, the mood darkens, and before too long we hear the ominous signalling of the shark’s arrival.

But here John Williams again shows his mastery of creating mood through music. Because the shark does not appear. What does appear is the horrific partly eaten bloated head of the sailor who had owned the boat they are searching. The shark’s doing of course.

I’ve said that the beginning half of Night Search is beautiful. It is in fact one of my favourite pieces of music by Williams. It is deceptively simple, creating an underwater world for us to explore, rather as Saint Saens did with Aquarium from “The Carnival of the Animals”. But there are other moments of wonder and beauty, and even fun, in Jaws. Promenade (Tourists on the Menu) is an utterly delightful quasi-classical overture, complete with harpsichord, which would be quite at home in the dining room of a palace. And that’s the point. The tourists promenading along the beach and in the water are the choicest of snacks offered up to the king of the sea. I’d be interested to know who came up with this wonderful idea – Williams or Spielberg. But it’s works beautifully.

And then we have a wonderful sea shanty-esque piece which is played a number of times when the boat is on the open sea. It is heard prominently at 0:19 in track 4, Out to Sea. It is playful, and treated in a number of different textured ways throughout the score – as a fugue, for example, but it’s always a breathe of fresh air. I always imagine eating fish and chips when I listen to this – there is something so very much of the sea and boats about it.

Some other music is reminiscent of the work Williams did on “The Cowboys” – for example, the scherzo he writes for “One Barrel Chase”. And that I sense is purposeful – it is almost as if they are riding the waves on horseback, as the boat is dragged along by the massive beast.

Preparing the Cage is a wonderful contrapuntal fugue of a piece, in which Williams shows his absolute understanding and deep roots in classical music at it’s best.

And then at the end of “Hand to Hand Combat”, Williams provides us with another absolutely beautiful passage, as the bloody remains of the fish sink below the surface of the water. The piano plays gentle arpeggios downward, as if tracing the fish’s last journey to the bottom. The strings provide the absolute perfect amount of cushioning, soothing and understated. This is then brought to a conclusion with the End Title, which is predominantly a slowed down version of the sea shanty theme. It’s almost a funeral march, sombre and stately. Interestingly, John Williams uses the same trick in his end theme to Jaws 2 a few years later, for which he wrote an entirely new sea shanty theme. But more on that when we get to 1978…

What’s in a lyric?

The cover for my musical based on Dracula

Well if you want to live, hear the warning I give,
And don’t you go to Castle Dracula
Young man, lend me an ear, don’t go anywhere near
And please don’t go, sir please don’t go

I write musicals. Musicals for performance by Primary aged children. But I happen to think that even if the music and lyrics are only going to be used in primary schools, the quality of writing in the lyrics (and the music, but that’s another topic) needs to be top quality. The rhyme scheme needs to be consistent, as does the metre. And the lyrics must make sense within the context of the action of the musical.

You’ll see in the excerpt, from my child-friendly version of Dracula above, that there are rhymes within each line – live and give, and ear and near. Quite apart from the fact that this appeals to my sense of form and shape, it also makes the lyrics a darn sight easier for kids to learn!

Dracula! Why does he terrify?
It’s just not fair if I
Can’t sleep when he is near
Dracula! I’m shaking like a leaf
Just thinking of his teeth
He fills me with such fear

In the above example, you’ll see how lyricists often create rhymes by placing short words together to rhyme with a longer word – hence “terrify” and “fair if I”. Stephen Schwartz is perhaps the master of this – countless examples in Wicked show this clever turn of phrase.

We’re off to find the beast
We’re searching everywhere
The undeceased we’ll make deceased
We’re off to find his lair
We’re searching for his nest,
We look for You Know Who
And we won’t rest until our quest
Is absolutely through

Above is another example of rhymes within lines, and also where lines 2 and 4 are rhyming couplets, as are 6 and 8.

In the following example, the rhyming couplets are as follows – A B C B A D C D. In other words, lines 2 and 4 rhyme, lines 6 and 8 rhyme, but in addition, lines 3 and 7 rhyme. These things are planned – they are suggested often by the shape and rhythm of the melody. For example, if lines 3 and 7 have the same rhythm or indeed melody, it feels right to find a rhyme to bring them together.

Fangs aren’t what they used to be
Fangs are just not what they was
It’s hard to find my joie-de-vivre
My bark’s worse than my bite because
Fangs aren’t what they used to be
Oh, Fangs have changed and that’s the truth
It’s hard when folks just don’t believe
In monsters who are long in the tooth.

Click here to listen to excerpts from this musical

Enough of the technique. What about the content? Well, when I’m writing a show, I ask myself at every turn, “Does this scene need a song? Could this narrative or dialogue be done more effectively through song?” And I’m always on the look out for some comedy – a chance to turn things slightly on their heads. So in my musical about Snow White, in which she meets a seven a side football team made up of very small people (Little Man United), I thought – what would people say if a baby was named Snow White today?

The front cover for my musical about Snow White

What a silly thing to go and call the girl Snow White
Like calling her red cherry, or green cheese,
To saddle her with such a silly name, it’s just not right
So spare a little thought for this poor baby please

Oh what silly things these rich celebrities do do
They give their little cherubs silly names
Like Lunar Landing Module Craft or Fifi Trixi Woo
When what they need is normal names like Sue or James.

Click here to listen to excerpts from this musical

So what’s in a lyric? Quite a lot of work! It takes thought, and lots of editing. I will often spend hours crafting the lyrics for just one song. Because it’s important. I believe that children deserve the same quality and craftsmanship as work that we would produce for adults.

Visit my schools music website to listen to excerpts from my growing catalogue of musicals

Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can’t, Teach

I remember when I was a young aspirational primary school teacher, fresh out of university, being told this by an old gentleman. I was outraged to say the least. So after 25 years in the profession, what are my thoughts nowadays? Is there any truth to this old saying?

Well, in one sense, there is. Teaching is for many creatives a back-up because their creative ventures do not bring in enough hard cash. If they could do their art, their music, full time, they often would. But can they afford to? It’s not because they can’t do the creating, it’s more that they don’t have the time or wherewithall to market themselves, or create enough of their brand or product to make it viable. And even to talk of your own brand or product as a creative can feel wrong. How does “Art for Art’s sake” or the simple joy of creating come into marketing?

Added to this is the sneaking feeling deep-down that to become popular, one must become populist, and in so doing, sacrifice something of one’s integrity as a creator. I wince sometimes when I hear the current often fairly talentless products filling the airwaves (balanced of course by the amazing talent of many people who are creating wonderful music and still managing to make a good living out of their art).

So in one sense, having learned the hard way that for many of us, however talented we may be, our creative endeavours will not be enough to fill the coffers, I have to come to the conclusion that, yes, I teach because to do my art and music full-time would possibly not pay enough. I teach because I can not DO – at least not full-time. Having said that, I also note that part of the reason I don’t engage enough with my own marketing in order to build my business is that I don’t have time to – teaching even part-time can take up a lot of time.

But at the same time, I would say this. I would not be here now, creating and writing about creativity, without the influence and inspiration of a number of teachers. Growing up in Australia, I had an amazing art teacher called Don McLean, whose intricate and utterly inspiring watercolours spurred me on in my own efforts as a gangly teenager. He’s probably long gone now, but I always remember him fondly, and thank him for his influence over me.

The thing is, for the next generation of creatives to learn that they can be true to themselves and should give expression to their creativity, we must have creatives in the teaching profession. Mr McLean was a humble guy, but he shared his work quite openly with us. I saw firsthand how he created a painting from start to finish. Kids need to see that the Arts are a useful and valid part of a healthy society, and indeed of their own life experience. And I thank my teachers for giving me that. Society does not always value the Arts as it should, and we in education must fight their corner.

And for me, the greatest joy I know is to see how many kids I’ve taught music to over the years that have moved into the creative professions, and are even making a good living out of it. But if they ever need to supplement their income, then I hope they remember me and will consider spending some of their career teaching, passing on their own skills – inspiring future generations further down the line.