In this article you’ll learn 12 essential tools for writing a melody for piano, with examples from some of the greatest keyboard composers.
Most effective piano music is built from small units called motives. A motive can be defined as the smallest unit of musical form that possesses a distinctive identity by virtue of its intervals and/or rhythm. Most motives are relatively short, consisting of about 4 to 10 notes.
Two of the most famous motives in the piano literature are Beethoven’s Für Elise:
and Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer:
While these two motives are relatively memorable, most motives are rather humdrum, including perhaps the most famous motive of them all, the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:
These four notes by themselves are not of great musical interest. It’s what Beethoven did with them that makes them unforgettable.
How do you write a motive? It can be as simple as choosing a sequence of several notes from a major or minor scale, and then creating a rhythm for them. Or alternatively, beginning with a brief rhythm, and then choosing notes from a scale to go with it.
Unity and Contrast
The twin principles of unity and contrast are important for understanding the role and function of motives in music composition.
Unity is achieved through repetition. The motive (first six notes in the upper staff) and accompanying pattern for left hand from the first two bars of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Fantasia in G Minor are immediately repeated several times with only small variations:
Unity (repetition) is crucial in music because without it, the human brain struggles to make sense of what may seem to be random sounds. However, too much repetition can quickly become tedious. If Telemann had continued repeating the pattern, the piece could quickly have become monotonous, if not silly. (Fortunately, the measures that follow are quite different.)
Contrast is achieved through change (i.e. non-repetition). The melody at the beginning of Sergei Prokofiev’s A Short Story contains little obvious repetition:
Contrast is essential for keeping a melody interesting. If overdone, though, it can make a piece disjointed and difficult to follow.
While a composition may emphasize elements of unity to the exclusion of contrast, or vice versa, most good compositions contain aspects of unity and contrast simultaneously. The variability (contrast) of Prokofiev’s melody (shown above by itself) is offset by the unity generated by a repeated pattern for left hand:
An astonishing (non-piano) example of balancing unity and contrast is the opening of Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner. Listen to one of the most extraordinary introductions in music, during which a single chord (Eb major) sounds for 136 straight measures. Wagner sustains interest during this remarkable expression of musical unity by constantly varying the instrumentation, chord voicings, textures, and dynamics.
What do unity and contrast have to do with motives? In most effective compositions, motives are repeated, but also varied. Because a motive is heard over and over, it contributes to a composition’s unity. Because a motive is also varied, it contributes to contrast.
The rest of this article describes 12 essential tools the greatest piano composers have used to transform a motive into a longer theme or melody, while establishing unity and/or contrast in the process.
Tools for Transforming Motives
Next you’ll learn about 12 essential tools that piano composers use to transform a motive into a longer theme or melody, while establishing unity and/or contrast in the process.
One of the most effective ways of elaborating a motive into a longer melody is by repeating it exactly, as Amy Beach did in her piano piece A Hermit Thrush at Morn:
Presto – instant unity.
Often other material is sandwiched in between the motive and its recurrence, as in Robert Schumann’s Melody from his Album for the Young, providing some contrast:
Transposition involves shifting all the notes of a motive up or down by the same interval. Transposition can also be applied to longer phrases or even an entire section of a piece.
In exact transposition, all the notes are moved by exactly the same interval. Exact transposition is more often used when modulating (changing) from one key to another.
In inexact transposition, which is much more common, some intervals are altered to stay within the key (scale). In Handel’s Saraband, the first two notes (both F) of the motive are transposed up a major 3rd (to A) in measure 3, while the last three notes of the motive are transposed up a minor 3rd:
Transposing a motive generates unity (same pattern) and contrast (different pitches) simultaneously. Transposition is often used in tandem with other tools.
Intervallic Expansion and Compression
Intervallic expansion involves increasing the size of one or more intervals in a motive, while the rhythm remains the same or is only slightly changed. In Chopin’s Prelude No. 6, the first two intervals of the motive are expanded, which alters its overall contour, providing contrast and building musical tension:
Intervallic compression entails decreasing the size of one or more intervals, as stride composer James P. Johnson did in the third measure of his Eccentricity Waltz:
The tools for developing melodies are often used concurrently. In Schubert’s Écossaise in C, the motive undergoes both transposition and intervallic expansion (of the final interval):
This tool involves repeating a motive’s rhythm (more or less precisely) but being somewhat (or very) free in the choice of pitches. Chopin built his tiny Prelude No. 7 with this tool. The rhythm of the motive is repeated eight times verbatim (the first four are shown below), while the motive’s pitches and intervals are subject to transposition and alteration in conjunction with the changing harmonies:
Inversion means turning the contour of a sequence of notes upside down, so that ascending 3rds become descending 3rds, etc.
In exact inversion, each interval is precisely mirrored, so that an ascending major 3rd becomes a descending major 3rd.
In inexact inversion, intervals may be altered so that an ascending major 3rd becomes a descending minor 3rd. Inexact inversion is used much more often in tonal (key-centered) music because it makes it easier to stay within the key.
J.S. Bach commenced the development of his Two-Part Invention No. 14 by immediately inverting (and transposing) the motive:
Inversion may be combined with tools such as transposition or intervallic expansion/compression, which multiplies the creative options!
A sequence is a restatement of a motive or other musical pattern at a higher or lower pitch. Like inexact inversion, the intervals of a sequence are typically altered to remain in the key. Sequences differ from many transpositions because they aren’t separated by other musical material. Sequences generally continue in the same direction (up or down), and typically contain at least three segments, like this one from Anna Bon’s Sonata No. 2:
Addition means lengthening a motive by adding new material before or after the final note. In his Rhapsody Op. 79 No. 1, Brahms extends the motive by adding material to the end of it:
Fragmentation involves extracting part of a motive and then (usually) developing the melody using the extracted part (fragment). Joseph Lamb developed a section of his classic rag Sensation by taking a fragment consisting of the first three sixteenth notes of the motive and repeating it several times using intervallic expansion:
Augmentation and Diminution
Augmentation and diminution involve changing the duration of the notes of a motive or series of notes such as a fragment. Because changing a motive’s rhythm risks making it unrecognizable, augmentation and diminution are usually applied evenly (for example, the duration of every note of a motive is doubled or halved).
Augmentation involves increasing the durations of notes by the same factor, as Beethoven did with a fragment in his Piano Sonata No. 27:
Diminution involves decreasing the durations of a sequence of notes by the same factor. Augmentation and diminuition generate unity (same pattern) and contrast (longer or shorter notes) simultaneously.
Ornamentation consists of embellishing a motive or longer phrase by adding standard ornaments such as grace notes or trills, adding a harmony, adding notes or rests, or slightly altering the rhythm, as Edvard Grieg did in measures 4-8 of his Waltz Op. 12 No. 2:
Retrograde is the restatement of a motive or longer melody with the tones in reverse order, from last to first. A remarkably ingenious example of retrograde, rare for its length, is the minuet from Haydn’s Piano Sonata XVI/26:
A more famous and briefer example of retrograde is the beginning of the chorus of George Gershwin’s influential standard I Got Rhythm. The motive, consisting of four notes (F, G, B-flat and C), is immediately repeated in reverse order. In this classic filmed performance, Gershwin himself performs the motive and its retrograde beginning at 0:19.
Retrograde is used much less often than most of the other tools. Applying it effectively can be tricky, and unlike, say, exact repetition, only the most astute listeners will notice it (if you’re very lucky).
Displacement is a rhythmic tool in which a motive is heard on a different (and often unexpected) beat. Displacement is usually most effective when the strong and weak beats of the meter are clearly stated in a different voice, such as the left hand in the example below.
In his novelty piano solo Kitten on the Keys, composer Zez Confrey developed the tune by immediately restating the motive (which is first heard starting on beat 1) on beat 4. He continued with two additional displacements of the motive (on beats 3 and 2 respectively) using rhythmic repetition:
The regularity and consistency of the LH pattern makes the displacements obvious to the ear.
While the examples above come from classical and jazz music, these tools are used in every style of music, including contemporary pop, rock and electronic keyboard styles. For example, in the infuriatingly catchy Eple (“Apple”) by the electronic band Rökysopp, you can hear multiple exact repetitions of the motive starting about 0:24 into the track, generating unity. Then, just when the listener might start getting bored, contrast is produced at 0:42 with the simple addition of one note. At 1:20, the tune continues with descending sequences of the motive, with some pitch bending for additional contrast and interest.
Some of the 12 tools for building a melody that you’ve learned about in this article will work better with some motives, and less well with others. With practice and experience, you’ll begin to intuitively grasp which tools to use in a given context, and eventually use them unconsciously yet skillfully to write effective melodies.