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How to Improvise a Piano Melody

Updated on August 29, 2013
JohnMello profile image

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Improvising a melody can be a fun way to explore your creative side
Improvising a melody can be a fun way to explore your creative side | Source

This article will give you some practical tips on how to improvise a melody at the piano. Forget about trying to write a symphony or the next big hit - just focus on stringing together a few notes that sound satisfying to you. Remember also that if nothing comes of your first attempts, the next time you might just strike gold.

Like anything else, the best way to approach it is to take your time, try a few simple ideas, and see what happens. Once you're at the keyboard you may be inspired or a tune might pop into your head. Even if it doesn't, these tips should enable you to come up with something reasonably acceptable.

What Makes a Melody?

A melody is a succession of notes that has some kind of form and purpose about it. Think about the tune for "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" for instance. It's pretty basic, but unmistakable. Up and down it goes in its familiar little way, not the most exciting tune in the world but one of the most easily recognizable.

Melodies include a number of different notes or pitches and some kind of rhythmic element. Let's start things off as easily as possible by focusing just on the notes and leaving the rhythm until a bit later. You can repeat this process anywhere on the keyboard, but for simplicity's sake we'll use the white notes starting on C.

Place your hand on the keyboard with your thumb on middle C and the remainder of your fingers on each of the successive notes above it, D, E, F and G, as in the picture below:

Place your thumb on C and the remaining fingers on each of the successive notes
Place your thumb on C and the remaining fingers on each of the successive notes | Source

Getting Your Melody Started

You've got 5 fingers to choose from. Will you start with your thumb, your 5th finger, or one of those in between? It doesn't matter, as long as you try something.

Remember that you can play scale-like passages, skip notes out, jump around randomly or focus on making tunes using intervals (the spaces between the notes). Everything is acceptable, and the point is that it should be fun. Let's try each of these techniques in turn, with examples of each of the following:

  1. Scale-like passages
  2. Skipping notes out
  3. Random jumping
  4. Using specific intervals

We'll kick things off with item 1, building a melody using scale-like passages.

Definition of Melody

According to Dictionary.com, a melody may be defined as:

  • the succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm.
  • the principal part in a harmonic composition; the air.
  • a rhythmical succession of single tones producing a distinct musical phrase or idea.

The word "melody" originates from the Greek word meloidia meaning "choral."

Melody 1: Scale-like Passages

To improvise a melody using the notes from a scale, simply play the notes one after the other as they appear in a scale. You can start on C and go up, or you can start on G and move down. The trick is to remember that whatever you do becomes the beginning of the melody, the "motif" that will help create the rest of the tune. Here's an example of one way to get things going, using note names to show the melody's progress:

C D E F G - G -

G F E D E - - -

And here's that same sequence written out in musical notation:

A simple scale-like melody fragment
A simple scale-like melody fragment | Source

Making Melodies Longer

You'll notice that this melodic fragment ends on the note E. If I had chosen to end it on C, what would it sound like? It would sound like it was finished. So, to avoid that happening, we end on a different note. That also gives us the opportunity to extend the phrase, which we can do with a bit of simple repetition. Here's how to do it:

Extending the melody using repetition, and ending on the tonic or C
Extending the melody using repetition, and ending on the tonic or C | Source
The melody for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star is one of the most easily recognized in the world
The melody for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star is one of the most easily recognized in the world | Source

Melody 2: Skipping Notes Out

In this second example we've avoided moving from one note directly to the next to see what happens. It still contains most of the notes of the scale, but it's different. To those listening it creates "gaps" which provide a bit more interest than just another scale passage. Here's what the melody looks like:

A melody based on a scale but omitting notes for variety
A melody based on a scale but omitting notes for variety | Source

Now we're going to be even cleverer and do something outrageously simple to extend this fragment into a longer melody. We're going to repeat the second bar, but at different pitches. We call this type of repetition a sequence, and here's one way to use it effectively:

Using sequences to make melodies longer
Using sequences to make melodies longer | Source

Since this entire 4-bar melody ends on the note E - and not on C, the tonic - that gives us the opportunity to repeat it and create an even longer melody. Try it yourself and see what you come up with.

Melody 3: Random Jumping

Another way to create a melody is to jump around from one note to the other without giving it a great deal of thought. Just experiment with your five fingers and the five available notes to see what happens. Here's what I came up with:

Jumping around the keys to create an edgy melody
Jumping around the keys to create an edgy melody | Source

I decided to add staccato to help give the "jumpy" feel to this fragment. Can you guess why the second bar is just a repeat of the first, but at a different volume level? The reason is obvious: I used all five of the notes in the first bar and therefore didn't want to have to create something completely new. I used the available material in the simplest way possible to extend what I already had. That's what composers have aways done - and will probably always do.

Now take a look at how I used this material to turn two bars of melody into four:

Source
Making melodies is a lot of fun
Making melodies is a lot of fun | Source

You'll notice that the volume goes back to forte (f) and that this fragment uses the idea of the initial bar with just a slight twist. To repeat the first bar again would have been overdoing things, so I did something else which allowed the piece to grow and maintain interest.

Melody 4: Specific Intervals

In this final example, I decided to use the interval of a fourth (e.g. C to F) as the basis for the melody. Here are the first two bars I created:

A melody based on the interval of a fourth
A melody based on the interval of a fourth | Source

To keep the melody going, I simply repeated the first half of the second bar, moved it up a note, and then inverted the interval (F to C instead of C to F) in the last bar. This made it easy to get to the final 3-note segment that makes the piece sound finished.

More intervals of a fourth with a driving rhythm
More intervals of a fourth with a driving rhythm | Source

Conclusion

Hopefully this process demonstrates a number of things:

  1. Any musical fragment can become a melody
  2. Repetition is the easiest way to extend a melody
  3. Melodies can be made any way you like
  4. Making melodies longer is easy if you use what you already have

The secret behind coming up with a good melody is much the same as it is for any creative pursuit: get something down on paper, and then refine it until it's exactly the way you want it. These are just a few techniques that can help you get started.

If the key of C is too plain or boring for you, simply move your hand to another key position. If you've got the skill, try a sharp key or a flat key. Or perhaps a minor key (use the white notes starting on D or A, for example). And always remember to have fun and not to take your efforts too seriously.

You can see and print the four melodies above by following this link:

http://www.scoreexchange.com/scores/143529.html

... where you'll also be able to listen to an mp3 recording of the music. Enjoy!

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    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks DreamerMeg. I hope I make it seem easier, if not simple. Good luck!

    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 3 years ago from Northern Ireland

      You make playing the piano keyboard seem simple. Maybe I should get back into working on it!