Life As A Freelance Musician Part 11: The Secret Art Of Composing Melodies

Melodies are what drive a song, especially in the case of classic video game songs. When you only have 3-4 channels, each note has to count. However, coming up with melodies that are unique and interesting is probably one of the hardest parts of composing. This article talks about some tricks for finding melody that don’t involve classical training or worrying too much about scales and things like that. These methods work great (especially for orchestral music) but since not everyone has that training and we’re focusing on video game music here, these are a few methods I’ve found handy for squeezing the best melody out of an idea.


Repeating Theme With Changing Bass Line

This is pretty much what most pop songs are and it works great for getting started in a video game song too. Come up with a simple melody that’s only a measure or two long. Set your DAWs to just loop it over and over. Then with a keyboard, try different bass notes along with the sample. You’ll quickly notice how the combination of bass note and melody change the feeling of the same notes playing repeatedly. Once you settle on a pattern you like, record (or put down MIDI notes) the bass part and then start modifying your lead to highlight the differences in the bass.


The highlighted section just repeats over and over again while the changing bass line modifies the feeling.
The highlighted section just repeats over and over again while the changing bass line modifies the feeling.

Here’s an example that started with just 13 little notes played over the course of 2 bars. The last two bars feature changes to break up the repetition and highlight the difference in the bass but at the beginning the highlighted notes played over and over with the entire bass line.




What Comes Next In Your Brain?


This is probably my favorite little technique. We listen to so much music that sometimes we sort of subconsciously know what “should” come next. It’s not always the most original thing, but if you are stuck, this trick can help you get back on track. If you have a song done up to a point but can’t seem to decide what should come next, set your DAWs to play it and then go into some empty space. At that moment, think what you expect to hear next. Don’t try to play it on a keyboard or a guitar, just let your brain tell you what comes next.


Arpeggios Lead To Ideas

Remember those 80s keyboards Radio Shack always had(has?) on display that has all those cheesy bosa nova presets where you press one key and it starts making a whole song? Well, this isn’t a bad way to stumble onto interesting chord progressions. I like to use arpeggio setups for this technique. Set up a arpeggio with lots of notes and just move around your keyboard and see where it takes you. Here’s a scratch track from an upcoming game where I built an arpeggio and started moving around the keyboard before settling on this progression that had chord changes I’d never have come up with just playing my keyboard.


Instant Inspiration


The most elusive of them all; sometimes you just get hit with a whole song all at once. This happens to me only about once every 3 projects, but its usually the best song in the whole project. Be ready to record ideas at any time. Most modern smart phones have voice memos. My wife gets a kick out of going through mine and hearing me going ‘duh duh da –daaaaaah’ when you can hear cars or a restaurant in the background, but you have to record when inspiration strikes. Often times, its when you aren’t doing anything that ideas appear. I was going to post one of my ‘da da daa’ tracks and a final version of it to show the difference but its just too embarrassing. I have heard more than one professional, respected songwriter/musician say that they have lost great song ideas because they didn’t have a pen or thought they could remember it later.


Subconscious Composition


I am not one of these people, but I know at least three who say they’re subconscious writes better songs than they do. They literally DREAM songs or have ideas in the moments before they drift off to sleep. Again, being ready to record and forcing yourself awake in these moments is the key. I can’t say this has ever happened to me and it seems like it’d require the most self control not to just fall back to sleep, but whatever works!


Work With Others


Nothing helps you get inspired more than working with other musicians. Have a friend write the melody or a rhythm track. Know someone who plays a rare instrument? Have them record a part. When I used to play in a band when I was younger, a combination of my friend’s ideas plus the “What Comes Next In Your Brain?” method applied by someone else to the same song lead to our group’s most dynamic and interesting songs. Two heads are better than one.


Got any techniques of your own? Any questions? Please share them.


Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 2.36.44 PMBeatscribe is a full time indie composer, musician and writer. By day he creates soundtracks and sfx for various mobile gaming companies, by night creates megaman-inspired chiptunes, in the afternoons he drinks tea. Check out his latest releases, tutorials and retro ruminations at

14 thoughts on “Life As A Freelance Musician Part 11: The Secret Art Of Composing Melodies”

  1. Hehe, I actually have had a couple of song ideas while I was dreaming. I dreamed about Napoleon Dynamite before I ever even saw the movie or heard the soundtrack. My mind custom fabricated how it should look and sound based only on what other people told me. This included the background music, which is a cool experimental electro-80’s track.

    Then I designed it on a cell phone DAW, and even some vocoder stuff with lyrics.

    When I woke up, it stayed in my mind really good. It’s rare that it happens, but it’s a really neat experience.

    The real Napoleon Dynamite sounds nothing like my dream song, though. ;P

    This was a good article by the way, and even though I already do most of these things, I totally agree. And I think it will be helpful to many song writers out there.

    Thanks for sharing!

    (P.S. I actually whistle quietly in my phone for my ideas… hehe.)

    1. Haha! That is awesome. It has never happened to me with music, but once when doing some programming, I was stuck on a bad problem, went to sleep, dreamt that i was working, fixed it and then I woke up. I sat down and looked at the code and said “hey my changes from last night didn’t save” then I did what i did in my dream and fixed it! the subconscious is amazing!

  2. this was helpful. wish there were more little tips. i prefer this other than knowing music theory. it does usually help to base the song around the melody and just let the rest of the tracks support whatever thats doing, or contrast it. I just found the GIMMICK soundtrack on youtube. was amazed at how much of it sounds like actual pop song writing. cool how the limitations of chiptunes helps you realize the full magnitude of song composition.

    another tip i find helpful is to make a track just with piano sound. melody, bass, and chord sequence. then find sounds for that track and tweak them. fun to try. you may also enjoy pcmusic soundcloud. very much in the same sort of compostion style as chip stuff.

        1. Ah, thank you! I actually did try to do this one time in Famitracker. I was making some kind of Latino salsa thing, and I also did another song using some orchestral hit as an epic space adventure theme… ack!… hard to explain. Maybe I’ll just show you sometime. :)

          I’m sure this tutorial you shared will help me smooth out some of the rough edges. I had problems with the fine tuning back then.

          I also have 2 Famitracker templates where somebody already did this with 2 different bassline sounds. There are about 3 octaves!

    1. Yes! Composing on piano would have been a good tip to add. Piano lets you play so many things at once in a way you can’t on a guitar. You will see a lot of pro musicians compose like that.

  3. I know what you mean about embarrassing voice memos, I have a ton that would sound silly to anyone else. I also do find that a lot of my best ideas come when I’m drifting to sleep, hard to make that extra effort to record them (and not wake the baby)!

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