Christmas in June

Sleigh bells ring. Are you listening?

I’ll bet that, in spite it being the end of June, you just found yourself humming or singing along with those lines from Winter Wonderland. You really just can’t help it. Songs do that to us. Or rather, melodies of songs do that to us. The melody of a song, more often than not, is what we carry around in our heads. We’ll find ourselves whistling a tune or humming a few lines of something while waiting for our computers to boot up. If you don’t believe me, just try humming a Christmas carol at work. You don’t have to use any lyrics. People will recognize it and ask you if you’re feeling okay. It might be a good way to get a day off (or a lot of days off – please don’t hold me responsible).

“Melody,” according to Walter Piston’s Harmony, “is any group of tones heard as a coherent. Usually, however, when one thinks of melody it is a particular melody, one with an individuality that is intended to be perceived. That melody is so basic to the very nature of music is shown by the way we identify individual pieces. We recognize compositions by their themes or their tunes, not by their harmony or form, nor by performer. When we hum or whistle to ourselves, it is melody that we hum or whistle, our recollection of the melody helping us to recreate in the mind’s ear as much of the whole piece as we can.”

This sums up things pretty well, don’t you agree? When I think of a song, oh, say Message In A Bottle by the Police, for instance, I’m not usually thinking “Okay, C#m to A to B to F#m,” or tapping the driving drumbeat on my knee (although sometimes I am and do). No, usually I am singing to myself, “I’m just a castaway on an island out at sea…” Good songwriters are very adept at creating melodies that stick around in your brain for loooong stretches of times. Ever find yourself hearing a song you absolutely can’t stand over and over and over again in your head? Well, you may not like the song but the melody is firing all your synapses.

Today we’re going to examine the basics of melody. In order to do that, it’s good to use melodies with which nearly everyone is familiar and that is why I’ve chosen some Christmas carols to help demonstrate various aspects of this subject. If you think about it, the best examples of melody are the ones that have been around seemingly forever. So if you really want to study what goes into a good melody, (a song melody, that is) you can’t go wrong looking at holiday and/or church music or traditional folk songs. And for those of you who are scowling at that, remember that you don’t have to like the source to appreciate what it can teach you. Great songwriters (and musicians) are constantly expanding their musical boundaries, taking what they’ve learned from various and sundry music genres and using that material to fashion new and exciting styles.

Oh, yes, the disclaimer:

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of the song. It is intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Shapes Of Things To Come

The study of music theory covers many forms of melody, but for today we want to concentrate on what is commonly referred to as “tunes.” Again, according to Piston:

“This term is used for describing melodies containing regular groups of phrases, strong tonic (root) and dominant (fifth) cadences…Song tunes are usually matched syllabically to a text in rhymed verse. As a rule, they encompass a relatively small range of notes (usually not more than a tenth), are easy to sing, and seldom use wide intervals, chromatic degrees or complex rhythms.”

I bet most of you understood that. This theory stuff gets easier all the time…When it comes to melodies, as I said, the examples are yours for the taking. Want a simple melody? What could better than a scale? Let’s take a descending scale, how about in D major just to pick a key?

D major scale

That’s pretty straightforward, huh? Sounds like any other descending D major scale you’ve ever heard, doesn’t it? But remember that music is malleable, you can stretch it like clay. Look at what we can do to this scale by simply playing around with the timing of the notes:

Joy to the World

Now that was an easy way to come up with a melody, wasn’t it? Of course, it’s not the entire song, but it does get things off to a nice start. Want an easier example? How about an arpeggio? Something in C major, perhaps?

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas part 1
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas part 2
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas part 3
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas part 4
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas part 5
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas part 6

This particular carol actually demonstrates several qualities of interest. As noted earlier, it starts out with a simple arpeggio of the C major chord. This is followed by a descending scale from the G note downward. Then comes another arpeggio, which ends with the G note on “light” (and kudos to those of you who said, “Hey, that’s a half cadence!”). At the “From now on…” line, the C major chord is arpeggiated again, but this time starting with E instead of C and it’s all wrapped up with a descending scale from that high E to the low E. In terms of chord progression, everything is fine up until that point as well. There are two cycles of I to VI7 to II7 toV7 (C to Am7 to Dm7 to G7) and the “From now on…” again starts out with the same first three chords. But it then uses the E note as a launch pad for a stack of V’s. Remember that I’ve told you that sometimes you might have to work backwards? This is a great example. V, or G7, is our destination, and since every immediately preceding chord is the fifth of the following chord, we could actually label that E7 as “V of V of V of V.” In essence, everything is a pivot chord. This might help make a little more sense of it:

Pivot chords

Looks a bit like a crossword for lunatics, doesn’t it? If you just remember that while G is V in the key of C, it is also I in its own key (where D is the V) and keep following the progression outward. Those of you who ever wondered when or where you’d ever have a reason to use the “circle of fifths” need look no further. And you probably don’t ever want to, either!

Our Christmas carol then repeats itself but does another interesting thing when it gets to the next “From now on…” point. Again it starts with the C arpeggio (with E as its first note) and the descending scale starting on the high E. That scale shifts on us, though, with the use of the G# (“miles”). This allows for the use of the E7, but this time it really is a V of VI and nothing more. (The Am to which it, however, is indeed a pivot chord leading to an interesting modulation to the key of F, that, unfortunately has to be a story for another time).

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas also is a good melody to study for its shape. Yes, melodies have shapes. Back to the book:

“The distribution of tones in a melody is marked by changes of direction, by range, by high and low points and by the variability with which all these occur in the phrase. Together all of these aspects constitute the contour of the melody, an important determinant of its character. A good melody will usually have a restricted range, with a high or low point that may be anywhere in the phrase. Secondary high or low points, which are common, do not repeat the primary high or low point. The majority of melodies seem to favor a rising-falling curve over a falling-rising curve, but there as many examples of the latter, as well as mixed curves.”

The C note on which this carol starts serves as its low point while the high E is actually a secondary high point (there is a high F later on, appropriately enough on the word “star” in the line “…hang a shining star upon the highest bough…”). Here you can also see that this is what Piston refers to as a “rising-falling” curve. Joy To The World, as I’m sure you’ve figured out without me having to write out the second half of the first line, would be a “falling-rising” curve.


Songs, as a rule, are not very long. If the melody is floating all over the place without any kind of anchor at all, then it may well be interesting but not necessarily impressionable. This is why repetition is such an important part of a melody. It reinforces a sense of tonality, providing that sense of home that our ears are on the lookout for. In Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, we hear the C major arpeggio that opens the song repeated no less than three times in the first two lines alone.

Some melodies rely not only on a repetition of notes, but of rhythm as well. Here, in Hark The Herald Angels Sing, you can see how every second measure is two quarter notes followed by either two tied (slurred) quarter notes (and always from B to A at that!) or a half note. Similarly, the odd measures (1,3,5 and 7) are identical in rhythm c quarter, quarter, dotted quarter and. Later on in the carol the odd measures switch to two other patterns but the even measures maintain theirs throughout the song.

Hark The Herald Angels Sing part 1
Hark The Herald Angels Sing part 2
Hark The Herald Angels Sing part 3
Hark The Herald Angels Sing part 4
Hark The Herald Angels Sing part 5
Hark The Herald Angels Sing part 6
Hark The Herald Angels Sing part 7
Hark The Herald Angels Sing part 8
Hark The Herald Angels Sing part 9
Hark The Herald Angels Sing part 10

What I also particularly like about this piece is that way the melody builds in intensity. The three D notes at “Joyful all…” and “Join the triumph…” (measures 9 and 11) are powerful, towering over the B to A slurs that follow. The melody tops itself yet again, hitting three high E’s and then introducing a new ascending scale in measure 15, complete with a pair of eighth notes to propel it upward. These are the first eighth notes we’ve seen since measure 7 and we’ve never seen more than one in any given measure before. It gives the melody a sense of urgency before it makes the big finale in measure 17 where the high E notes are combined with a new rhythm pattern (albeit an inversion of sorts of the first one) and form the climax of the song. The last two measures actually become a bit of a cooling down for the voice, almost like you’d do at the end of a physical workout.

Rudolph And The Riffs

A while back (and everything seems a while back right now!) we discussed the basics of songwriting from a music standpoint. In A Before E (except after C), we touched upon what I called “riff writing.” This is when a song was written on the basis of riffs. Often, especially in blues-styled songs, the riff would be transposed to fit the chord in the progression (most often going from I to IV).

Songwriters do this occasionally when writing melodies as well. After all, if a melody is pretty catchy, a change of key shouldn’t hurt it. But an interesting variation of this sort of technique is to take a musical phrase and just transpose part of it. That sounds a little bit confusing, doesn’t it? Not to worry, we can look at and example:

Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer part 1
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer part 2
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer part 3
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer part 4

This is truly songwriting in one of its simplest and purest forms. Look at the notes in the first measure:

First measure

And compare them to the notes in measure 5:

Measure 5

The intervals are exactly the same. It just starts at a note one step lower than it did in the first measure. The rhythmic pattern is the same, and having this two-measure phrase end on the same A to G notes creates an echo, although a slightly altered one, of the phrase in measures 1 and 2.

An added bonus is that these notes themselves describe a G7 chord, which perfectly fits the chord pattern. And speaking of chord patterns, this part of the song is simply a half cadence followed by an authentic cadence. It’s Down In The Valley (from You Say You Want A Resolution…) all over again!

You might think, especially since I’ve told you several times how there are only so many notes with which to work, that it would be difficult to come up with melodies that are dynamic and different. But that’s not really the case. Since different people have different ideas (not to mention abilities) as to what one can sing, there is still quite an untapped source of interesting melodies out there. If anything, melody poses a problem for many songwriters simply because they are not certain how to come up with one, good or bad. Part of this trouble stems from the fact that, to be honest, melody is the last of their concerns. Good riffs or good chord progressions are where our efforts are focused and once that is taken care of, well then hey, we’ll just sing/chant some notes in there and it’ll be okay. I’m not saying to drop this method of writing and start with the melody (although it’s a great exercise and can teach you a lot), but I will tell you that the better your melody, the more people are likely to remember your song.

No matter what time of year it is.

We’ll be returning to this subject later this fall, so get your questions together and send them to me either directly at [email protected] or drop them off at the Guitar Forums.

And while I’m on the subject, I’d like to take the time to thank all of you who have taken the time and trouble to write since I started my tenure here at Guitar Noise. Your input has been invaluable in helping me give this column direction, as haphazard as it might seem at times!

Until next week…