March 18, 2019 - LESSON #2


In my opinion, the best way to learn how to compose music is to learn from the ‘greats.’ To do this we study their music, learn their rules, break their rules, and then make our own. Understanding that the second most important element of music is melody, we also find that this is usually the first thing people recognize when listening to music, whether there are lyrics or not. That’s where we will begin this lesson. How do we compose a great melody? Let’s start with structure. This is where we now go back to the greats of the classical era. How did they structure a melody? And why?

The why is easy…so people would be able to understand the message and could more easily follow along, especially on longer pieces of music. A large part of conveying a message in music is repetition and symmetry, and how to use them. A listener will have expectations. Some they will bring to the music from prior experience, and some they will start to form as they hear what you are doing with your music. For that reason, we need to know exactly why we choose certain notes, at certain times, and how they lead to or resolve from other notes.

The how is what we are covering in this, Lesson #2.


“To break the rules, first you must know the rules, and then you must be able to master the rules. Only then can you break the rules.”

I don’t know how many times I heard variations of this statement throughout my college years of studying composition. My teacher, Dr. Roque Cordero, was like a drill sergeant. To me it was restricting, frustrating, tedious, and totally necessary. In the end, he knew what he was doing. What are these rules?

1) A Classical period is made up of 8 measures. A double period is made of 16 measures.
2) The Classical period is broken into two, 4-measure phrases.
3) The 4-measure phrase is broken into two, 2-measure motives
4) The motive is made of fragments.


A period is a structure of two consecutive phrases, often built of similar or parallel melodic material, in which the first phrase gives the impression of asking a question which is answered by the second phrase. In Western art music or Classical music, a period is a group of phrases consisting usually of at least one antecedent (question) phrase and one consequent (answer) phrase totaling about 8 measures in length (though this varies depending on meter and tempo).

Listen to this short video, containing 4 examples of Beethoven melodies.
We will reference the first 3 (5th Symphony, Für Elise and Ode to Joy)

Each is structured with the period or double period. Can you hear the motives, phrases and periods?

Beethoven 5th melody.jpg

The melody from Symphony No. 5 is derived from the opening 4 notes, G-G-G-Eb. Beethoven then took this and with variation created a 16 measure, classically structured double period. The melody begins at measure 7 after a 5 measure intro, with measure 6 acting as pickup notes. The first motive is measure 7 through 10, made up of one fragment idea (being the 4 notes), repeated at different pitch levels. Measure 10 contains pickup notes to the second motive, going from measure 11 through 14. This second motive is a variation on the first motive due to the altered pitches near the end. We can label motive #1 as a small a. Motive #2 as an a’. The apostrophe is called prime, like math. So we have motive a, and motive a’.

Measure 14 contains pickup notes to the 3rd motive, going from measure 15 to 18. This can be labeled a’’ (a double prime) since it is yet another variation on the opening motive. Some may argue that although the rhythm is the same, the change of note direction gives it a completely new sound. If you agree than you can label it motive b. Then three more pickup notes to the last motive, going from 19 to 21. This will be motive b since I labeled the previous motive as a’’. After that we have an extension of the phrase, repeating the opening statement half step higher than the opening to the movement.

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fur elise.png

The melody for Für Elise follows the structure of a Classical 8 measure period. The first two 8th notes act as pickups to measure 1. The 8 measure period is divided into two 4 measure phrases (1 through 4 and 5 through 8). Each phrase is divided into two 2-measure motives.

a - measures 1 & 2 / b- measures 3 & 4 / a - measures 5 & 6 / b’ - measures 7 & 8

As you can see the first motive, or motive a, is repeated at measure 5 and 6. Measures 3 and 4 are the b motive. Since measures 5 and 6 are an exact repeat of the first motive, he creates a variation of his b motive in measure 7 and 8, thus labeled motive b’ (again, the prime meaning it is a variation of the first statement of that motive).

This brings us to one of the rules of structuring a melody.

RULE REGARDING a-b-a’-b’-etc.

After the presentation of your first two motives, a and b, you can only present a new motive (c or higher) once you’ve presented a prime version of an earlier motive. For instance, in Für Elise he could not have had motive four be motive c, because measures 5 and 6 were an exact repeat of motive a. If measures 5 and 6 had been a variation on motive a, or labeled a’, then he could have gone to motive c. This rule exists to help the listener be able to understand and follow the flow of the melody. Where is it going, why is it going there, etc?

At this point you may be wondering, what is it with all these labels of a, b, a’, etc.? And why are we using small case letters rather than capital?

In analyzing a piece of music these have become the norm to help clarify where we are in a piece of music. Since the melodies breakdown to motives as the smallest complete thought (fragments being just that, fragments that are incomplete on their own), we need to label them so we can see how the composer manipulates them over time. This allows us to understand what the composer is trying to communicate. When we go one step further, in a future lesson, to analyzing the sections of a piece of music (melody 1, melody 2, etc), we do this with capital letters.

ode to joy.gif

The melody Ode to Joy is a 16 bar Classical double period. It is structured as two 8-measure phrases each with two 4-measure motives. You can see that he made the motives 4 measures long by extending each 2 measure motive with a repeat at a different pitch. For instance, measure 3 is a repeat measure 1 a third lower. After that he closes the motive with a change, signifying to the listener that the thought is complete. In addition, the continuing quarter notes throughout the first 3.5 measures keeps the idea moving, until we reach the half note. Yet another signal to the listener where the motive begins and ends.

This melodies structure is: a - a’ - b - a’

First thing we notice is that after motive a is presented he immediately repeats it with variation (a’). This opened the door to present the new idea (or motive b). If he had just repeated it as the original a, he would have had to start repeating it again, maybe as an a’. But instead he went straight to the variation. This opens the door for a new idea, or b. After that he could have done a b’, but then the listener may have wanted him to repeat something again…in general it may not have felt like the melody was coming to an end. He could have also done an exact repeat of motive a. The problem then would have been the fact motive a does not end on the tonic (or the I chord). For that he needed to repeat a’. This gives the melody a nice structure, having the listener feel as if they went from a starting point we will call ‘home,’ drifted away (which is motive b), and then returned home.

If you analyze the vast majority of melodies, and overall songs or pieces of music, this HOME - AWAY - HOME structure comes up over and over. It’s the most basic concept for taking a listener on a journey that has meaning, drama and interest.

Here are some typical melodic structures we find in Classical music:

  1. a - a - b - a

  2. a - a’ - b - a (or a’ or a’’)

  3. a - a - b - a

  4. a - b - a - b’

  5. a - b - a’ - c

  6. a - a’ - a’’ - b


Write two melodies using Structure #1. Once completed submit to me and I will give feedback. We will go through each structure this way until you have control over these structures and how they work. Don’t forget how harmony influences the direction of a theme. Submit them to me at