In the first part of this article, I explained how notes, scales, rhythm, tempo, and chords. In this section, we will discuss writing melodies and harmonies, and we will discuss timbre and how that affects the piece.
- Melody – a series of notes and/or chords played in a rhythmic succession at a tempo
Pick some notes, pick a rhythm, and pick a tempo, and you have a melody! The easiest way to think about it is anything that you can hum or sing along to is a melody. Below is a segment of the melody “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” If you have a piano nearby, you can try to play it yourself!
This piece is in the key of C, which means the notes will come from the C scale, and the “tonic” (the main chord of the piece) is a C chord.
- Harmony – a series of notes that are played simultaneously with the melody
If the melody is the main singer, then the harmony is the backup singer, the drumset, the instruments, etc. A chord being held while the melody is being played is also a harmony. Below is a very simple harmony added to the “Mary Had A Little Lamb” melody.
Notice how the note in the lower part changes from C to G in the third measure? That’s because the key ( the double-flatmain chord of the piece) briefly changed to G major. This is called a progression, since it progresses from C to G. The G in the key of C is known as the fifth (V) since it is the fifth note of a C scale going upwards. Even though in the example the note goes down, it is still the V because it is still a G.
There is a variety of chords you can use, but the typical chords played in a piece in C major are C major (I), A minor (vi), F major (IV), and G major (V). In the key of F, that would be F major (I), D minor (vi), Bb major (IV), C major (V).
Notice how you can add chords and scales that start on a black note? The only rule to this is to make sure you can comfortably line up your notes. You wouldn’t use a Db minor scale because the 6th note would be B double flat), which makes it too complex. You can use that scale if you call it a C# minor scale instead.
- Timbre – the sound quality of an instrument or other sounds
A piano sounds different from a tuba, a flute sounds different than a set of bongos, and a theremin sounds different than a euphonium. These instruments have their own unique voices the same way humans do. This is what their timbre is. Sometimes their voices sound similar, but they are never exact. Using these different timbres in a piece can change the quality of it dramatically. Imagine “Amazing Grace” being sung by a graceful choir. Now imagine it being played by a bunch of children with kazoos. The melody is the same, but the timbre of the instruments is what makes the piece special.