How to Write Melodies

Question: Hi Albert, I have for a while now trained to develop relative pitch and now I can recognize every interval when I hear them but I have reached a dead end. Even though my interval recognition is good all of that is just smashed when I try to write down a melody I hear. It is very frustrating since I have put much time and effort into developing my ear. So my question is: do you have any tips for what I can do? My goal is to be able to write down melodies from my head onto paper without the piano but as you can imagine it’s hard without a decently trained ear.

P.S. Thank you for this brilliant webpage, it’s helping me a lot.

– Nicolai (Sweden)

Albert’s reply: The reason you’re having difficulty is that there’s a major difference between “standalone” intervals and those that occur naturally in a musical context. You’ve trained yourself to recognize the former but not the latter.

The solution to writing melodies is to learn to recognize scale degrees. This means not only recognizing the intervals you know within a harmonic context, but also thinking not in terms of intervals but rather of the location of the notes within the scale.

There’s a simple experiment you can do that I believe will prove my point. Play the notes E-flat and the G above it. I’m sure you’ll recognize it as a major third.

Now play the C below these notes, and then play a C minor triad.

Finally, play the original interval E-flat and G. This time it sounds “minor” because you’re now hearing it in the context of a minor triad! (This is a good trick to play on students to illustrate the psychological nature of ear training.)

I wrote a more detailed lesson on interval ear training that lists all the intervals found in the major scale. It will teach you how to practice each of the intervals within a musical context. Indirectly it will teach you how to write melodies since you’ll recognize the scale degrees by ear. This will solve your problem!

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