I wrote about Roy Peter Clark’s book “Writing Tools” in a recent post. Although it contains 50 tips for writing with words, a majority of the lessons and ideas can be applied to writing notes.
His first tip is to begin sentences with subjects and verbs. In the context of writing this helps you be strong, clear, and assertive. I’ll admit that in my writing I still struggle with this. For example, look at the sentence above that starts with “although”. Or the one I just wrote that starts with “for example.”
Fortunately I’m a bit better at this when it comes to writing music. The way this translates for composers is to start melodies with a strong and interesting motive. The first part of a melody is the most important part. It’s what helps listeners identify what the melody is (eg. recognizing a theme, recognizing a melody coming back later in a piece). It can also grab their attention, and lead them off into whatever new direction you may be taking them.
If you analyze the great melodies throughout time, it’s surprising how many of them have a unique opening and a commonplace ending. For example let’s look at the very first melody in Haydn’s “Joke” String Quartet.
The first two bars are interesting, unique, and unmistakably belong to this piece. There are several little ideas to play with and develop. You could never start your own piece of music with these two bars because you’d be obviously copying. But what about the end of the melody, bars 7 and 8? It just runs down a scale and circles around Eb.
Completely cliche and something you’ve heard a million times! And yet it was good enough for Haydn, because the ending is not as critical to a melody’s success as the beginning. The beginning is where you need to place your focus, and where you need to lead with your strongest material. The end is where you tie it together with a cadence and make your next move.
That brings us back to Clark’s tip: “Begin sentences with subjects and verbs” becomes “begin melodies with strong motives.”