An Introduction to Writing Tonal Melodies

Much has been written on the subject of composition. From writing Baroque counterpoint to composing in more modern styles (Classical and others), many books and treatises set forth various ‘recommendations’ for constructing strong tonal melodies. (I’m using the word recommendations rather than rules as rules tends to suggest something which is inflexible whereas, as we will see, composition is anything but).

As you will notice from the heading of this article, we will only be considering the fundamentals of tonal melody writing; other styles such as modal, atonal, serial etc will be discussed in other articles. All examples in this article will be related to a simple solo melody with chordal accompaniment; writing for multiple instruments and larger ensembles will be discussed in other articles. All of this article’s examples will be drawn from the songs of The Beatles. While there are countless other great melodic composers the Beatles’ music was chosen for its accessibility.

Topics which will be discussed in this article include:

  • How to construct a solo melody
  • The harmonic framework
  • Interplay between melody and accompaniment
  • Shaping with dynamics


How to Construct a Solo Melody

Many of the topics listed above overlap. The truth is, even a piece of music conceived as a work for solo instrument will follow some sort of tonal framework; even if the harmonic accompaniment is not literally performed it will be in the composer’s mind. However, for the purposes of this section we will be considering a melody’s construction, which will initially be made without consideration of the harmonic basis.

All melodies have a shape. While it is difficult to discuss every possible melodic outline, it is possible to discuss several general characteristic shapes.

Shape 1: This melody’s shape includes a gradual rise to its highest point, the climax, which is followed by a return to a lower point.

Shape 1

Many melodies from a diverse range of music follow this idea, to varying degrees.

While this outline can be used as a representation of a melody’s overall shape, it can also show the general outline of different sections of a melody, such as a recurring verse or chorus melody.

The verse from Hey Jude illustrates this shape.

Hey Jude

If we exclude the initial C quarter note upbeat we can see a steady rise from the A half note in bar 1 up to the F quarter note in bar 3, and on to the climax on the G sixteenth note in bar 5. The climax comes in the second half of the verse melody and begins a descent to the final F in bar 8. As you can see, the shape of example 1 is not followed literally by the Beatles’ melody but provides a generalisation of the melody’s direction.

Hey Jude shape

Shape 2: This melody begins at a higher point and gradually moves lower.

Shape 2

Again, this may represent the entire melodic shape or recurring sections of melody.

The verse from Norwegian Wood illustrates this shape.

Norwegian Wood

Notice that there is a steady descent from the A dotted quarter note in the first bar to the A quarter note in the last bar.

Norwegian Wood analysis

Shape 3: This melody consists of a series of rises and falls which culminate in an ending.

Shape 3

The Beatles’ song Yesterday, illustrates this shape.


Yesterday shape

Two features common to all of these examples is the shift between higher and lower notes – the change of register – and a destination which the melody is moving towards.


The Harmonic Framework:


As was mentioned earlier, often melody and accompaniment is written simultaneously. However, for this section we will begin with the harmonic framework and consider how a composer might construct a melody over it.

The following four bars contain a simple I – IV – ii – V – I progression in C major. (For ease of discussion, the chords are indicated without regard to consecutives).


Before beginning to write a melody over this harmonic framework, it is important to remember that essentially all melodies are constructed from a mixture of harmony notes, notes which belong to the underlying chords, and non-harmony notes, those that don’t.

If we use only harmony notes

Harmony notes

our melody, though possible, is essentially arpeggiating the accompaniment. Because the melody simply uses notes which are already sounding in the accompaniment the only way of creating any interest is through rhythm. Rhythm is one of the key elements in creating interesting melodies and can give drive and interest to a work.

MOdified prog

Though the example is now more rhythmically interesting, it still lacks a feature common to most melodies: tension and release. Tension and release refers to the strategic use of dissonance (notes which aren’t part of the accompaniment) and consonance (those which are). The shift between consonance and dissonance is one of the key elements behind a melody’s drive towards its final note. Consider the following

Tension and release

Here, the F note, which is part of the G seventh chord, is reiterated over the C chord and creates tension with the notes of C major, C – E – G. This tension is only resolved when the F note moves down to E, the third of C major.

The tension and release can also be included in the melody. In the following example the non-harmony notes (shown by crosses) fall on the beats, except for the penultimate B note in bar 2 (the B note is ‘working’ with the D eighth note on beat 2 to approach the C from above and below).

Non-harm onbeat

Including non-harmony notes on the beat creates a stronger need for resolution when compared with non-harmony notes on offbeats. Compare the following with the previous example

Non harm Offbeat

Melodies combine both on and offbeat non-harmony notes. While onbeat dissonance has a greater need for resolution, offbeat dissonance creates movement which assists with the melody’s forward drive.

Returning to our original C major progression, let us begin to add non-harmony notes to the existing melody.

Adding non harm 1

Notice we have ‘filled in’ many of the notes of the arpeggios in bar 1 and beats one and two of bar 2. Most of the added notes are offbeat passing notes (as the name suggests, passing notes move by step between two other notes). The sole onbeat dissonance, the F eighth note on beat four of bar 1, is also a passing note, but it is an onbeat, or accented, passing note.

The second half of the melody retains the original leaps. As we saw with the Beatles’ examples, melodies are constructed from a mixture of stepwise motion and leaps. As with this example, leaps typically occur between two harmony notes. Generally, after a leap the melody will change direction and continue.


The energy created by the stepwise motion in the first two bars of our progression leads to the C dotted quarter note in bar 2. This C note then moves by leap to the climax at the beginning of bar 3 (D), after this the leaps lead the work to the final cadence in bars 3-4.


Interplay between melody and accompaniment:


Like our example. many pieces of music consist of an accompaniment which sounds the chords but doesn’t interact with the melody. Others include some interplay between the accompaniment and the melody.

To create interplay between these elements we are again essentially thinkings in terms of rhythm, harmony notes and non-harmony notes; tension and release. There is a further aspect to consider, however: the interplay between instruments. Interplay between instruments, like a conversation, needs to have a topic to discuss. This topic, or motif, can then be passed between the instruments to create a type of call and response effect.

The motif does not necessarily need to contain a melody and may instead be rhythmic. For our example, potential rhythmic motifs include the dotted quarter note-eighth note figure and its variants, and the four eighth note grouping from bar 2.

If we use only the rhythm of these motifs in the accompaniment, but include them as a response to the same rhythm in the melody, we would get the following

Rhythmic motifs

Even without a melodic shape the rhythmic motifs create a call and response with the melody and also give a further drive to the piece. A possible melodic outline for these motifs could be as follows (for ease of discussion, the melodic outlines are added without regard to consecutives)


We could also add the dotted quarter note-eighth note figure in bar 3.

dotted quarter note-eighth note figure

This gives an added drive to the final cadence and also rhythmically ties bar 3 with bar 1.


Shaping with dynamics:


A further means of shaping a melody is through the use of dynamics.

At their most fundamental level, dynamics will follow a melody’s shape and get louder at the climax before tapering off.


Of course, this is not a requirement. The use of dynamics is completely at the composers’ discretion. It may involve a general crescendo towards the final cadence


or, sudden dynamic contrasts

Contrast dynamics

Whatever their use, dynamics should help to convey what the piece is about, or what the composer is trying to express through the music. The addition of a programme (a narrative which the music is portraying), lyrics, or visual media to a piece of music may be enhanced by the use of dynamic shading.

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