Friday, January 17, 2014

The Creative Process—Melody

Often in the process of songwriting the words and music seem to be so deeply intertwined as to be inseparable. Think about the carol Silent Night or the folk song Mockingbird. It’s difficult to think of those lyrics with any other melody, isn’t it? This should be a songwriter’s goal—to create a work that is more than the sum of its parts, and a work where the lyric will seem married to its melody.

For me, for whatever reason, after I’ve finished working on the lyrics of a song, the melody is just there, like a gift from God. This may not be the way it works for you, or you may prefer to start with a melody or motif (or already have one), or do your melody writing at a keyboard. But always keep the words in mind as you work on the tune. If nothing else, the words can help you craft the melody to best enhance the message of your song.

When I was first published, I worked for a church and would sit at my desk, working on my songs in between phone calls and my other responsibilities. I’ve discovered that for me, working at a keyboard limits me to what my fingers want to do. Personally, I write better melodies if I think with my heart rather than my fingers and focus on the words, but each writer must find their own preferred method. There’s no “wrong” way if you create something you love and that resonates with others.

We’ve said before that composing and arranging is really making use of elements that already exist, merely combining them in ways that are uniquely yours. For instance, much as I would like to, I can’t take credit for the C-major scale. (Wouldn’t that be a nice royalty check?) But I certainly use ascending (as well as descending) step-wise motion! Also, I don’t believe I’ve ever come up with an interval no one has ever heard before, but I do try to make my melodies—and my voice leading—interesting, unique, and memorable, while being very singable.

When crafting a melody, you have to take into account the age group for which it is geared, and factor in any range limitations they may have. While you want the melody to have a singular beauty and originality, you need to consider what will be comfortable for your singers. Depending on the age group, you may need to adjust the range utilized. (Most publishers have pretty strict parameters for voice ranges. See below for Heritage Music Press guidelines for their various imprints and voicings.)

If you are writing a song for an elementary age chorus, it’s good to keep the range within an octave. “From C to shining C” is a fair rule of thumb, with the tessitura being in the middle of the staff.

For Middle School or Junior High, treble voices have a little more flexibility. Again I try to keep the range primarily on the staff for Part I; a bit lower for Part II; 4th line F to D above Middle C for Part III in the bass clef. When writing for High School or Adults, it really depends upon the song and the group you are writing for (or the publisher’s guidelines).

If I’m writing for the church choir, I keep in mind the volunteer musician and assume it will be performed by a smaller ensemble. The ranges for the sacred market tend to be a little less demanding, and take into consideration groups that have fewer voices and often consist of older members.

(Contributed by Mary Lynn Lightfoot, Editor)

Sing Out Series (Unison & Two-part)—This series features music for the general music classroom and general music/non-auditioned choirs, so I like to keep the ranges from B just below middle C (or ideally middle C) to no higher than a top space Eb or E. Of course there are always exceptions depending on the piece and the niche for which it was written.

New Horizons Series (Unison, Two-part and Two-part with Descant)—Targeted more for middle school treble, so the high note can go up to an F or F# and sometimes, a top space G. I like the lower note to still be the B or a Bb.

Three-part Mixed—Part III range: Lowest note is bass clef 4th line F and they can go up to an E or Eb. Part II can go down to an A below middle C, but usually a B or Bb and then D or E as highest note. For Part I the lowest note is usually middle C (sometimes a B) and they can go up as high as a top space G.

SAB—The baritone range can go down to a bass clef 2nd line B or Bb, but usually a 2nd space C seems to be the lowest note. Women's ranges are about the same as Three-part Mixed.

SATB—Pretty standard ranges. The only exception is if it's an SATB piece for junior high-aged singers and then the Bass part won't go below a bass clef 2nd space C (rarely a 2nd line B).
Ruth Elaine Schram wrote her first song at the age of twelve, and her first octavo was published twenty years later, in 1988. In 1992, she became a full-time composer and arranger and now has over 2,000 published works. Over thirteen million copies of Schram's songs have been purchased in their various venues, and Ruth has been a recipient of the ASCAP Special Award each year since 1990. In addition to Schram's choral music for church and school choirs, her songs appear on thirty albums (four of which have been Dove Award finalists) and numerous children's videos, including sixteen songs on four gold videos, and four songs on one multi-platinum video. Ruthie's songs have also appeared on such diverse television shows as The 700 Club and HBO's acclaimed series The Sopranos.

Ruthie began piano and theory lessons at the age of five. She studied music at Lancaster Bible College and Millersville State College and taught Elementary Music in Pennsylvania for several years. Schram now lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband, Scott, and they have two grown daughters, Crystie and Celsie.

Ruth Elaine Schram's current published works, including pieces published by Exaltation Publications, Monarch Music, Laurel Press, Heritage Music Press, and Lorenz Publishing Company (all Lorenz companies) are listed on her web site,, with samples of audio excerpts and select pages of the scores.

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