Here’s a strange little exercise to try, if you are stuck for a melody. If you’re not stuck, this post is not for you. This is not the inspiration that you seek.
Song writers are very concerned about the contour of a melody, how the melody builds interest and forward motion throughout the song, how the song climaxes and how the melody and the words work together, to support each other. They care about prosody and making sure that the key words in the lyric are key points in the melody. It’s all very complicated, yet quite simple.
Here are some excellent articles on the ideas behind making a melody interesting and using the melody to deliver the emotional impact of the lyrics:
There’s some inspiring analysis in those blog posts.
On the other hand, people that write and deliver speeches have similar concerns. They care that the speech has a beginning, middle and end, that the speech builds audience interest and climaxes at a key point and that the vocal delivery of the speech is at its most fervent and passionate, when the key note of the speech is reached. “I have a dream”. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”. These lines are as memorable as any song hook or catchy ear-worm laden song chorus.
Some of the best exponents of oratory are actually science television presenters. These people have to convey interest to the general public about complex ideas that, to most of their audience, are simply boring. They have to do it with an impact. People like Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman were masters at this.
Meanwhile, in music technology land, you can now buy quite cheap tools to take an arbitrary vocal and change it into something that sings. It might be as obvious as heck that the vocal has been processed, but it does put the out of tune into tune.
That’s interesting. I wonder if you can use that tool to take a lyric, deliver it as a spoken, passionate oratory, and then turn that into a sung melody. Sounds like a very strange idea, right? What a waste of time. Nobody would do that.
Take a listen to this:
In this clip, the musician/producer has taken speech from some well known scientists and turned it into melody, through auto tune – that effect that analyses the instantaneous pitch of the sound and quantises it to the nearest musical note in a chosen scale. OK, they might not be great melodies, but they might suggest an idea for one. What is unarguable is that the melodic contour matches the passionate peaks of the speech.
Here’s a web page from a composer and sound designer, who went to a conference and recorded snippets of vocalisations from people he met in the corridors. He then went and processed the speech segments and made music with it, again using auto tune to transform the vocalisations into something resembling a pitched instrument.
This is the sound track that he made with those modified recordings. Take a listen:
Pretty amazing, huh? Every sound is an utterance. Again, it’s readily demonstrable that there is inspiration for a melody in the most common of everyday found sounds.
My friend, the composer Roger Bolton, tried this with a recording of a rooster. Here is the result he made:
So there you have it. You never need be stuck for a melody or idea for a musical motif. They’re all around you.
Here are the easy steps:
1) Write the lyric, as if you were trying to get a crowd to believe in what you say
2) Deliver the lyric in the style of a great orator (it helps if your lyric has a structure much like a good speech)
3) Take the recording and auto tune the heck out of it (Why not? The pop charts overuse this effect all the time!)
4) Listen to the results. Do you find anything interesting melodically, in the tune? Is there a usable motif? Does the way the speech/melody builds to its climax suggest the notes you ought to be considering in your melodic contour?
It’s a funny little exercise and not one you could base a career around, but as a different approach to melody making, it can yield some interesting directions.
Give it a try.