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How to Write a Rock Song (Part 1)

Part 1 Melodies

Six articles showing you how to write a song (or instrumental) from scratch, explaining the idea of rhythm and the use of syncopation, melody writing, how to fit words to a melody, how to build appropriate harmonic structures, the use of form, how to devise such common devices as riffs and how to use the instruments you have available to play the music you have written. Month by month the lessons you have learned and the exercises you have written will enable you to write a complete piece of your own.

Part 1 Writing a Melody

This month, in the first of these articles, we look at the rhythmic and harmonic implications of writing a rock melody — the use of syncopation to give the correct feel, how to choose the notes for the melody - with exercises to give the necessary practice.

Writing music can be seen as arranging sounds in time to produce a satisfactory effect. Our culture uses the concept of rhythm to decide the relative duration of sound (and silence) and of the distribution of accent. This works by having a steady pulse or beat against which the sounds can be measured and a regular pattern of accented beats. In our notational system this is brought about by use of a time signature and barlines.

Figure 1a.

Figure 1b.

Tap the pulse of Figure 1a with your foot. Use a steady tempo and count time aloud as shown. With your hands clap the rhythm in time with the pulse. Do this several times and then repeat the process for Figure 1b. You should feel the difference between dividing the pulse into groups of three and groups of four. Also, in 1a most of the notes occur on the beat, and those that don't belong to a group of notes starting on a beat. This creates a very different effect to that of 1b where the opposite is true.

This latter effect is called syncopation and its use in varying degrees is mainly responsible for the difference in style between blues, jazz, rock, pop and 'straight' music, where most of the important things happen on the beat.

In a melody, in general, the important notes are the ones belonging to the prevailing harmony. For our purpose, this means a note belonging to the chord being used to accompany the melody at that point, or one belonging to the mode or scale from which the melody is taken.

Figure 2a.

Figure 2b.

Figures 2a and 2b show melodies harmonised by the chord of C7. Careful examination will show that the notes belonging to that chord (C,E,G,Bb) occur mostly on the beat and any 'foreign' notes occur off the beat. Again, counting time aloud, sing or play the melodies whilst tapping the pulse with your foot.

Now repeat this procedure for Figures 3a and 3b.

Figure 3a.

Figure 3b.

A comparison of 2a and 3a will show that the melody of 2a has simply been pushed forward by half a beat to give the melody of 3a. This results in the harmony notes being on the off beat giving a syncopated effect.

Comparing 2b with 3b will show that the first five notes of 2b have been brought forward in 3b and that the rhythm for the last two notes has been altered to place both of them off the beat. Thus, syncopation can be achieved by placing the important harmony notes either before or after the beat.

There are ways of writing melodies other than by simply stringing together a mixture of harmony notes and 'foreign' notes over a chord sequence. A very common one in rock music is to let all of the notes in the melody belong to a pentatonic scale regardless of the chord sequence being used to support the melody.

A pentatonic scale is one consisting of five notes and is usually built using the first, second, third, fifth and sixth degrees of the major scale. Figure 4 shows the pentatonic scales in the keys of C, F and Bb major. In theory, any pentatonic scale can be used against any chord (examine the improvisations of Joe Sample, Wayne Shorter, etc.) but in practice it is usual to use one belonging to a scale which is fairly close to the key of the chord sequence.

Figure 4 & Figure 5.

Figure 5 shows a syncopated melody using the pentatonic scale of Eb over a blues sequence in the key of C. Examine it carefully and then play the melody, keeping a steady pulse. If you are playing this on a polyphonic keyboard, play the chords in the rhythm of the pulse. If you have no means of playing the melody and the chords simultaneously, try pre-recording the chord accompaniment and playing the melody along with the tape. (It is important to keep the accompaniment on the beat at this stage to maximise the syncopation of the melody).

I cannot overemphasise the necessity of being able to play these syncopated rhythms and melodies whilst counting time and keeping the pulse. I know many adequate players who cannot read music and, although they play syncopated phrases, could not actually keep the pulse against them. The knowledge of syncopation and the ability to write and play syncopated phrases gives access to an endless supply of totally authentic rock phrases, not available to musicians who prefer the learning methods of blind parrots. When practising syncopated melodies, you might find it necessary to practise clapping the rhythm only against the pulse to start with and then add the complete melody when the rhythmic part is satisfactory.


1. Write some rhythms similar to Figure 1a, where most of the notes occur on the beat.

2. Syncopate these rhythms. Experiment until a satisfactory result is achieved.

3. Repeat this process by writing simple one bar melodies using the harmony notes of one chord only. Use harmony notes on the beat at first and then rewrite using syncopation. This process can be expanded to the use of two, three four bar chord sequences, etc.

4. Write syncopated pentatonic melodies of various lengths. Try playing them against various chord accompaniments.

Next month we will look at the problems posed by adding words to a melody. Happy syncopating!


Read the next part in this series:
How to Write a Rock Song (Part 2)

Previous Article in this issue

Amdek Rhythm Machine Kit

Next article in this issue

Studio Sound Techniques

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Mar 1983




Writing A Rock Song

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Feature by Martin Glover

Previous article in this issue:

> Amdek Rhythm Machine Kit

Next article in this issue:

> Studio Sound Techniques

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