Posted on February 5, 2010 at 2:32 pm

I’m standing at a blackboard on which I’ve drawn a staff. Give me a key!, I shout.

Someone yells “D Major!”

I write two sharps on the staff. Okay, what time signature are we in?

“4/4, Common time.”

What’s the feel?

Several conversations begin at once. Finally, a voice emerges: “Disco!”

Got it. I mark out four measures on the staff, and then scribble in a melody.


All right, there’s the first phrase of a cheesy melody. Now we need another phrase that answers it. Who’s got it?

A couple of hands go up. One guy sings some random notes in an unknown tempo, someone else starts to sing something then stops after a measure saying, “Ah, I don’t know where I’m going with that,” another person just sings back the phrase that I’ve already written. Eventually, we have three options, and two of the three end by landing on the tonic, like this:


I tell the class that if I pick a phrase that ends on the tonic, then for all intents and purposes, the song is over. The tonic tells us we’ve achieved our aims. Therefore, I’m going with the other option.


“But that option sounds sort of stupid.”

I agree, sir. But the aim of this exercise is not to create a great song. What I’m trying to do is to create a correct song. Let’s establish the rules for what makes something right; once we’ve done that, we can worry about how to make it good.

Now we’ve got eight bars. Let’s discuss what to do with the next section of the melody.

I have a theory about the psychological origins of AABA structure, and it goes something like this: It takes me saying something three times in order for you to get it. So I’m going to say it once, and you’re not going to get it. I’ll say it again, maybe a little differently, but you still won’t get it. If I just go right on and repeat it a third time, you’re going to think I’m an idiot, so I have to reframe my point, give it some new context. Now I’ve built up to it, and you’ll understand me better when I go back to my original point. And let’s face it, if I’ve said it three times and you still don’t get it, you’re probably not going to.

So that’s AABA structure, psychologically. Say something once (A1), say it again (A2), find some new context (B) so you can say it one last time (A3).

Therefore, since we’re writing a melody that has an AABA structure (and we’ll be dealing with AABA structure an awful lot in this class), we’re now up to the point where we have to find a phrase that will recontextualize our original A.

What does that mean? How can we recontextualize a phrase of music? And a stupid phrase at that?

There are a couple of traditional avenues that we can walk down here. Let’s explore two: First, we can go to a different area tonally. If we’ve been sitting in the tonic (I) for a long time, maybe we go to the subdominant (IV), like Hoagy Carmichael does in “Skylark.” In “Where Or When” (Rodgers & Hart), the B section is in the relative minor (vi). Gershwin goes to the III for the B section of “I Got Rhythm.”

We can also change our rhythmic energy – thus far our melody has been very syncopated; maybe we can do something more lyrical and less jumpy. Look at “The Way You Look Tonight” that we dealt with last week – the A section starts with whole notes (semibreves, if you’re reading this in London or you’re pretentious); the B section goes to half notes (minims). More subtle is Bernstein’s melody for “Lucky To Be Me” – the A sections are built on one-bar phrases (“What a day”), and then the B section expands those out to two-bar phrases (“I am simply thunderstruck”).

With this in mind, one of the students proposes the following B section for our melody:


Works for me. Even though all we’ve got is a single-line melody, I already have a sense of where this B section goes harmonically. And since it ends on the 5th scale degree, it leads beautifully back into our A3.

For our purposes, the first two measures of the A3 are going to be the same as the A1. So it’s just a matter of wrapping this thing up. How do we close out this melody and feel like we’ve made our musical point?


Perfect. And I love how the rhythm in the 3rd measure echoes the rhythm in the 3rd measure of the B. Very elegant, actually. Far better than this song needs to be! But I’m not complaining.

Now we’ve got our sixteen-measure melody. It’s time to figure out who’s singing it, and why.


(Wanna hear it?)

Stay tuned.