How to Write a Piano Melody

You want to write a piano piece. You may have an idea of what you want to create – perhaps you already have a set of chords and a style in mind. Maybe you have absolutely nothing so far. 

Before writing a piano melody, it’s important that you understand what a melody consists of. There are THREE key components that form a melody: Rhythm, Shape and Harmony.

1. Rhythm

Rhythm is determined by a combination of notes with different time values. Usually long and short notes alternate.

In the bass clef of bars 1-2 of the example below (a), the composer has gone for two quarter notes, two eighth notes, and another quarter note, followed by two half notes in bar 2. This is a good variety and is an ideal combination for a theme.

In bars 3-4 (b), you can see that the composer keeps the first half of the melodic line the same, but slightly modifies bar 4. Instead of repeating what’s in bar 2, he goes for two quarter notes and a half note. Bars 5-8 (c) are again variations of the original two bars.

Bottom line? Short rhythmic patterns often repeat in course of a melody. Here and there they are embellished with variations.

American vs. English note values

A note value determines how long a note sounds when played.

  • Whole note ………… Semi-breve
  • Half note ……………. Minim
  • Quarter note ……… Crotchet
  • Eighth note ………… Quaver
  • Sixteenth note ……. Semi-quaver

2. Shape

If you draw a line connecting all notes of a melody, an undulating curve will appear on your staff. This is what we call the shape of a melody.

The example below features a right-hand melody line, with the notes ranging from Bb to G.

Experiment with different melody shapes! Switch between ascending and descending shapes and find the best combination.

3. Suggested harmony

Harmony is made of any additional tones or chords that enrich the melody. Before building harmony, you must know which key you manoeuvre in.

Looking at the melody below, our key is B flat major (including two flats). The first bar of the theme begins with chord I (Bb, D, F are all used in the first part) before it teases F, chord V. You can see the eighth notes descending through A, G and F.

Bar 2, however, takes us away from the expected chord V and up to Gm, chord VI, before taking us back down to chord V again before the bar ends.

It is common for the harmony to start with chord I and with chord V, whereas chord IV creates tension before the calm.

Quick test: Try to identify which chords are used as the harmony in the second line. (You will find the answer at the end of the article).

Practice Time!

Now that you know the key ingredients of a melodic theme, it’s time to write your own! You’ll need to:

1) Print a piece of blank sheet music by clicking on the link below

Your blank sheet music

2) Insert your key signature

3) Draw in the bass note of each chord in your progression, thinking about where they are going to be rhythmically

4) Begin drawing ideas for your melody!

Jellynote decided to interview Ellie Palmer, assistant editor of Pianist Magazine, to find out how to compose a simple piano melody. Pianist Magazine offers a fair range of professional advice and lessons for passionate players of all levels. Read, learn and play the piano with Pianist Magazine every month. www.pianistmagazine.com

Answer from test above: Bars 5-8 see the harmony move through Bb’s most used chords; Gm, F, Eb, and a brief switch to Dm at the end of bar 5 – chord III.

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