* Let students compose poems with MuseScore (or Sibelius or Finale...)

About melody

I usually teach my students that music contains the following elements:

  • melody
  • harmony
  • rhythm
  • timbre
  • dynamics
  • structure

Sure this list can be discussed, but I've found it working. My simple definition of melody is "a bunch of single tones in a meaningful order". Again, "meaningful order" is a subject of debate, but I usually give my students the following "rules" for the "meaningful order", always reminding them that every rule is merely a guideline, and when you break it, you might create something genuinely unique or cool. Or something that only makes you appear like a dilettante.

These are my guidelines:

  • melody likes to follow scales, or gradual movement
  • where melody jumps over scale tones (jumps are thirds or bigger intervals), the jumps
    may be "compensated" by scale movement in the opposite direction
  • melody may also jump from chord tone to chord tone
  • gradual or jumping, the notes in a melody should preferably be picked from a particular subset of all tones - these subsets are called keys (like C major or F minor)

I used to let my students create melodies using a midi editor that had this "piano roll" editor, where they could place tones in a simple 12 tone grid. The problem with that was that it was hard for the students to create anything tonal. They didn't find the "subsets", everything became atonal. Not that it would have been less melodic, but the atonality distracted them from hearing the melodic qualities.

So I decided to let them use a good sheet music editor instead. And since it's hard to treat melody without discussing harmony, rhythm and structure at the same time, I gave them a task, where they had to form the melody of a song, where the rhythm and the structure was more or less given. The poem I gave them was a nice Christmas poem by the Swedish poetist Lennart Hellsing. Since I have no permission from Mr. Hellsing to expose the poem, and since this blog is in English, I decided to replace the poem with some lines following the same metre:

When all the anger, hate and wrath
surrounds you and gets in your path,
remember to stand up and fight
for love and peace on Christmas Night.
(Lyrics by Johan Halmén, free to use)

The task

What I gave my students was a MuseScore file like this:

Here you can download the file in

Following my simple guidelines for melodic movement, my students' task was to drag the note heads upwards and downwards to form a melody line. I told them that this setup states that the key of the song will most likely be C major or A minor. I also pointed out that the last note may therefore be C or A (pointing out where they are in the stave). I even mentioned that if they wanted to use accidentals (black piano keys), they had to use arrow keys on the keyboard, but it appeared most of them just dragged the notes with the mouse, creating diatonic melodies.

An important thing of course is to listen to the music while editing. Sure they could just do the dragging of the noteheads according to my melody "rules" and only listen to the final result. Of course, every decent sheet music editor has these playback controls.


The students returned some nice melodies. I haven't even checked all of them yet. This one was the first one we had a deeper look at:

First thing I notice was that it started and ended on D. A clear case of D minor. Since we were talking about melody, we could have left the whole task by that. That is a nice melody. Some repeating tones, mostly gradual movement, some jumps. But in our course we are heading to harmony, which got me to explain how I would put chords to this melody.

Actually I wanted one of the girls to sing this song in our school Christmas party. She had difficulties getting the end right. She wanted to sing G E D instead of G F D. That was the only thing I wanted to change in the melody in the first place. But I said to my students that I will not change a single note. I will manage to put chords to the melody as it is.

Here's the final version with chords:

And since the original poem had three verses, I did this recording, playing it three times through, treating the ending a bit differently the last time:

* Click to download an mp3 file *__ 

The song never made it to the Christmas party. But I'm most sure we will sing it next year.

Whose song is this?

As I see it, a song has a composer and a lyricist. Period. Look in any song book with sheet music and you see that the composer and the lyricist are mentioned. Anyone writing chords or a second voice or a piano arrangement is merely an arranger for that particular publication. When we do these things with my students, I always want to underline that they are the composers. Even if I change a note here and there, they are the composers. This particular melody will be associated with the lovely three verse poem by Lennart Hellsing, not with my single verse above. So if we ever get the permission from Mr. Hellsing, the song will be remembered as "Julsång by Hellsing and Österholm".

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Comment by Stefaan Himpe on January 19, 2014 at 4:32pm

First of all, I really like the melody your student created and your harmonization of it.

I tried your approach of dragging around notes in a sheet editor with my 8 year old daughter (who so far has demonstrated surprisingly little interest in music) with some success. We explored a bit how "jumpy" melodies tend to sound more "difficult" than "smooth" melodies. She ended up composing a 3-bar phrase and adding some words to it. I think she's motivated now to continue exploring on a next occasion. So thank you for sharing this brilliant idea with us!

Comment by Johan Halmén on December 28, 2013 at 11:41am

You're right again, as usual, Julie. The highest point is important. Of course it doesn't always have to follow one particular pattern. But one good pattern is that the highest note is reached once, and it happens in the latter part. Sectio Aurea is always a good choice. Say your song is 34 bars long. The highest note would be in bar 21 (21 and 34 being subsequent Fibonacci numbers!)

But, as I wrote, it's difficult to talk about melody without talking about harmony, rhythm and structure, too. And the thing with the highest note has a lot to do with the structure. Melody doesn't become a song without structure (unless it's based on one single line of lyrics without regular metre, without any structure in itself). A 34 bar melody most certainly has a structure.

It just happens that my latest composition turned out to be a little failure on this point. It repeated the highest note several times, making the whole song a bit flat and dull. I found a nice solution. In the final chorus I did a typical half step modulation so that when the highest note occured the last time, it was a half step higher than all the other times. The style of the song was very nostalgic, very Lloyd-Webberish. Though I've been very aware of these mood lifting modulations in songs of a particular genre, I've never realized that they might have to do with this "highest note" thing, until I had to fix one of my own songs with such a modulation.

Comment by Harmonia on December 26, 2013 at 4:07pm

What a great article, Johan!  It gives some really helpful ideas for teaching melody to composition students.  I like the fact that they can concentrate on just one thing, and that when they are done, they have a finished piece!  I'd like to add one "rule" or "guideline" to the excellent list you included.  I always tell my students that the best melodies are those that have one note that is the highest or lowest note and that it acts as the climax or destination.  Unless the form is song form which repeats sections, this one note would occur one time. 

I think my favorite part of your guideline is when you tell them that breaking the rules could very well produce something unique and cool!   Or ... it could be the mark of a dilettante.  When they can tell the difference between those two possible outcomes, they are well on their way! 

I like the finished piece your student created.  It must be fun to be in your class!!!

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