Another technique for melody generation

I just stumbled on this and it’s proven so far to be AMAZING.

I call this my “Love Theme seeding method.”

For me, one of the hardest things about creating new music is getting started on A piece and having no context, no starting point. I can burn up creative fuel just settling on what is to the first chord, or the first note. And actually, this doesn’t matter, because great themes can be written starting on any chord or note.

Often, I’ll first think of a the opening notes or chords of a piece I’ve recently listened to—but feel I can’t go there because that’s unoriginal, even though NOTHING is original. For example, since I’m scoring a Star Wars fan fiction, I have Leia’s theme, Han and the Princess, and Luke and Leia (Plus Marion’s theme from Raiders) all on my mind, all of which start with the I and iv chords, so I feel on one hand like if I want to sound Star Warsy I should write a love theme starting that way, but on the other hand that I’m being too unoriginal. This kind of pointless agonizing gets me out of my creative head.

So I have here a simple way to get a context to write into. It gets you started and eliminates questions about where to start, saving your creative fuel for imagining a great melody.

First, ask your phone for a random number between 1 and 17.

Then, based on the number, the first two chords of your love theme will be one of these pairings:

  1. I-iv
  2. I-II7/I
  3. I-ii
  4. I-ii/I
  5. I-vi
  6. vi-iv
  7. I-iii
  8. I-VII
  9. I-V7+
  10. I-iv/V
  11. I-VI
  12. I-III7+
  13. ii-vi
  14. I-v
  15. I-IV
  16. iii-ii
  17. vi-II

Now, ask your phone for a random number between 1 and 3. If it’s 1, reverse the order of the chords. You’ll begin with the second chord.

You’re almost ready to write your melody. But now ask for a random number between 1 and 10. If it’s between 1 and 3, your melody must start on a pickup note before beat 1 of measure 1. If it’s 4 or 5, your melody must start after the downbeat. If it’s between 6 and 10, your melody can start on the downbeat, although that is never required. This is just to get you out of always starting on the downbeat.

Now you have a context. All these chord pairings are solid beginnings for a love theme. You don’t have to worry that you’re doing something weird, nor are you copying somebody, because you didn’t even choose it. It it gives you I-iv, hey, the universe must’ve wanted another Leia’s theme, so go write it.

My advice would be to generate 5-10 melodies, and then revisit them in a couple days or ask a friend (or your film’s director) to pick his/her favorites. Other people will often spot the best ones, and you’ll find yourself agreeing.

Then you can adjust or hone the melody, obsessing over a note here and there to make it perfect. That’s where your creative energy should go, not into the pointless exercise of getting started. Siri can get you started.

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Here is a lovely theme I stumbled on that was seeded by “I-ii/I” (#4). Obviously there was lots of development that happened after those initial chords, but I feel that I was liberated to spend my creative energy on that development rather than spinning my wheels figuring out where to start. The starting point is almost meaningless, and isn’t what’s special about the theme, anyway.

Love theme H

(Incidentally, for those who are sticklers about melody, I am aware that I break a rule of good melody writing in this piece. The jump up of a major third that leads into the downbeat of measure 3 is, technically, wrong, or poor melody shaping. But so far, the “correct” ideas I’ve tried in its place sound boring or hackneyed to me. So I’m still mulling that phrase over, trying to decide whether the “mistake” is jarring or whether I can sneak it in. Right now, I’m leaning toward continuing the search for something better. This is what I mean by obsessing over little issues, and I think it’s worthwhile.)

Also, the list of 17 is surely not exhaustive. Please insert your own favorites, or delete pairings you don’t like. And please let me know what I’ve left out!

And one last thing…please don’t feel like, by using this list, you’re stealing from me. Because none of these pairings was “written” Irvin any way thought you by me. I realize that’s obvious, but I just borrowed them all from love themes I know…which were all borrowed by THEIR composers from PIECES THEY had heard. Nothing is wholly original, so we should drop the feeling that we might be copying too much. I’ve just done the work of compiling a good starting list, and there’s no reason for anyone to duplicate that labor. It wasn’t a creative undertaking, just an inventory of my favorite opening chords.

#1 comes from the pieces I mentioned above (and also from a million other places).

#2 is from Yoda’s theme or the fanfare from Jurassic Park, or the love theme from A Star is Born, or ET, or a million other places.

#3 is From the 1976 King Kong by John Barry (and many others) (actually Barry puts a vi chord between the two chords, but the I and ii are what matter)

#4 is Gone With the Wind (and a million others)

#5 is the chorus of the theme from AI Artificial Intelligence (and many others)

and on and on.

One more thing I like about these odds is it forces you to tackle slightly unexpected and offbeat beginnings, but not that often. Most of the pairings you’ll get will be ordinary, and many with the melody starting on the downbeat. So it has you writing “regular” stuff, which you need to do, but not always. It pushes you just a little.