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Thread: Why are scales important for writing melodies?

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    Default Why are scales important for writing melodies?

    I’m trying to wrap my head around the concept of tonality and how scales fit into it. From what I understand, the relationships between notes (intervals) are at the core of how we write melodies and why they make us feel the way we do. It also seems that scales are built on top of those relationships and then chords are built on top of those scales. I still feel like I’m missing something there. Does anyone else have some insight into this? Wouldn't it be easier to just base everything off of the chromatic scale instead of having a million different scales and chords? Every interval relationship is already in the chromatic scale, why do we need other scales??

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Any particular scale is a representation of the tonal character of a piece of music using that scale. A scale has a tonal center - its starting note - and its tones have particular relationships to that center and to each other. Music composed on a particular scale is identified as such by its use of those relationships.

    In a sense, the chromatic scale isn't a scale at all. Unlike true scales, the chromatic scale has no tonality: no tonal center and no specific relationships of other tones to that center. Having no tonality, it has no beginning or end; it can start on any note without any change of character. It's always the same sequence of intervals - all half steps - no matter where you start, and thus has no system of relationships between tones from which a piece of music can be built.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Mar-20-2020 at 06:56.

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    Woodduck's explanation is at the heart of good melodic writing. A good melody will exploit the relationship and tension set up with scale hierarchy for the best emotional and musical effect. This exploitation can either be compliant with what the scale requires in terms of resolution and other formal procedures or can go against the grain of what is expected.

    There are other important factors in good melodic work of course, such as inevitability, climactic points, tension, relaxation, repose, rhythmic variety, harmony with its rhythm and progression etc. that all contribute to the whole, but fundamentally and in the context of tonal (i.e scalic) work, a 'good' melody will be one that in the main, conforms in its progression through time, to the established parameters and functional principles of the scale, albeit with the occasional 'rub' against the grain.

    This 'rub' can take many forms such as suspensions, non harmonic notes, accented passing notes, unexpected intervallic leaps and resolutions, rhythmic impetus and so on. Whatever technical means a composer uses, a melody often reflects very personal choices in the composers' aesthetics and approach to music and expression.

    Much can be gleaned from studying how a composer manipulates his work through musical time via melody as it is a key (sorry,not intentional) component and indicator of the musical impetus of the work, it's semantics, syntax and development.
    Last edited by mikeh375; Mar-20-2020 at 09:14.
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    Quote Originally Posted by youngcapone View Post
    I’m trying to wrap my head around the concept of tonality and how scales fit into it. From what I understand, the relationships between notes (intervals) are at the core of how we write melodies and why they make us feel the way we do. It also seems that scales are built on top of those relationships and then chords are built on top of those scales.
    I look at "composing melodies" as a player who improvises and "creates melodies" on the fly, in the moment of performance.

    I still feel like I’m missing something there. Does anyone else have some insight into this?
    I think that linear, melodic ideas are best thought of in terms of what chord it is derived from. Thus, the idea of trying to play or create music using "scales" as your top priority and starting point is not productive, and can even cripple your creativity. Scales should be considered merely as an "index" of notes, and your melodies should be created according to chords. "Scales" should remain in the background. Scales are not musical ideas. Think in terms of melodies over chords.

    Wouldn't it be easier to just base everything off of the chromatic scale instead of having a million different scales and chords? Every interval relationship is already in the chromatic scale, why do we need other scales??
    A "scale index" limits the number of notes used (usually from 12 to 7), and creates a tonality. A distinct sense of tonality (or color/flavor of sound) is created just as much by what we leave out of the 12 notes. Thus, scales create tonal identity by limiting and specifying notes and intervals.

    Otherwise, everything can become a chromatic mush of sameness.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Mar-20-2020 at 15:17.

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    Wouldn't it be easier to just base everything off of the chromatic scale instead of having a million different scales and chords? Every interval relationship is already in the chromatic scale, why do we need other scales??
    What a question. Is this for real?

    If you learn the C major scale, you automatically know all of its 7 modes as well.

    In terms of an improvising on an instrument, this becomes obvious.

    I suggest you learn some of these ideas through playing by ear. If you have to do this away from your music lessons, do it, but a good teacher will have you do this, or accommodate it, anyway.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Mar-20-2020 at 17:30.

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    I look at "composing melodies" as a player who improvises and "creates melodies" on the fly, in the moment of performance.

    I think that linear, melodic ideas are best thought of in terms of what chord it is derived from. Thus, the idea of trying to play or create music using "scales" as your top priority and starting point is not productive, and can even cripple your creativity. Scales should be considered merely as an "index" of notes, and your melodies should be created according to chords. "Scales" should remain in the background. Scales are not musical ideas. Think in terms of melodies over chords.
    Speaking as one whose occupation of some 35 years was improvising melodies for people to dance to, I'm surprised by your statement. In composing, it's certainly possible to begin with a sequence of chords and fit melodies to it - a passacaglia or variation movement would provide such a harmonic framework - but in my experience the rhythmic and intervallic shape of a melody is at least as basic to its identity; a melody can exist and be distinctively itself independent of any harmony, as shown by the fact that virtually any melody can be harmonized in various ways. In composing, any of the elements - melody, harmony or rhythm - can be conceived prior to the others, but in the moment of creation all the elements are likely to arise simultaneously, none of them "derived from" the others. (Dance music is an example of the priority of rhythm; the melody serves to reinforce it, either directly or indirectly by playing off it).

    As for scales, you call them "background" in the compositional process, saying that they are "not musical ideas." I would say that the particular tonal system represented by a scale can be the most fundamental musical idea in a piece of music, and can determine its character more than any other. The tonality a composer is working in, implicit in a particular scale, is most likely to be chosen prior to the deployment of the other three elements, as a sort of "basic premise" for a work. Rather than conceiving melodies "according to chords," we conceive both melody and chords according to a particular tonality. This doesn't mean that a composer is strictly confined to the notes of a particular scale, but merely that that scale is highly determinative of a work's character. It's much more than an "index" of notes.

    Thinking in terms of "melodies over chords" simply doesn't happen in plainchant and much non-Western music, where there are no chords. There is, however, a diversity of scales - of tonalities and modalities.

    As far as creativity is concerned, I can't see how the choice to compose in, say, the Dorian mode is "not productive" and likely to cripple anyone's creativity. Any process of composition involves the acceptance of certain limiting factors. Stravinsky was emphatic about the acceptance of limits being a spur to creativity, not a hindrance to it, and in my experience as an accompanist he was right; the more specific and clearly expressed are the rhythmic ideas demonstrated by a ballet instructor, the greater the stimulus is to my musical imagination and the more character and spirit my improvisations are likely to exhibit. Stravinsky asked Balanchine to tell him exactly how many bars of what rhythms he wanted, just as, for Tchaikovsky, the specificity of Petipa's instructions seems to have liberated his imagination and produced some of the finest dance music ever written. In general, the clearer an artist's idea of what sort of thing he's trying to produce, the more successful the product is likely to be.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Mar-20-2020 at 21:07.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Speaking as one whose occupation of some 35 years was improvising melodies for people to dance to, I'm surprised by your statement. In composing, it's certainly possible to begin with a sequence of chords and fit melodies to it - a passacaglia or variation movement would provide such a harmonic framework - but in my experience the rhythmic and intervallic shape of a melody is at least as basic to its identity; a melody can exist and be distinctively itself independent of any harmony, as shown by the fact that virtually any melody can be harmonized in various ways. In composing, any of the elements - melody, harmony or rhythm - can be conceived prior to the others, but in the moment of creation all the elements are likely to arise simultaneously, none of them "derived from" the others. (Dance music is an example of the priority of rhythm; the melody serves to reinforce it, either directly or indirectly by playing off it).

    As for scales, you call them "background" in the compositional process, saying that they are "not musical ideas." I would say that the particular tonal system represented by a scale can be the most fundamental musical idea in a piece of music, and can determine its character more than any other. The tonality a composer is working in, implicit in a particular scale, is most likely to be chosen prior to the deployment of the other three elements, as a sort of "basic premise" for a work. Rather than conceiving melodies "according to chords," we conceive both melody and chords according to a particular tonality. This doesn't mean that a composer is strictly confined to the notes of a particular scale, but merely that that scale is highly determinative of a work's character. It's much more than an "index" of notes.

    Thinking in terms of "melodies over chords" simply doesn't happen in plainchant and much non-Western music, where there are no chords. There is, however, a diversity of scales - of tonalities and modalities.

    As far as creativity is concerned, I can't see how the choice to compose in, say, the Dorian mode is "not productive" and likely to cripple anyone's creativity. Any process of composition involves the acceptance of certain limiting factors. Stravinsky was emphatic about the acceptance of limits being a spur to creativity, not a hindrance to it, and in my experience as an accompanist he was right; the more specific and clearly expressed are the rhythmic ideas demonstrated by a ballet instructor, the greater the stimulus is to my musical imagination and the more character and spirit my improvisations are likely to exhibit. Stravinsky asked Balanchine to tell him exactly how many bars of what rhythms he wanted, just as, for Tchaikovsky, the specificity of Petipa's instructions seem to have liberated his imagination and produced some of the finest dance music ever written. In general, the clearer an artist's idea of what sort of thing he's trying to produce, the more successful the product is likely to be.
    This seems to be good information to me. I'm not trying to limit anyone's options, I'm just giving them advice and trying not to overwhelm them, as a good teacher does.

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