How to Spice Up Your Melodies with Non-Diatonic Notes
In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to spice up your melodies with non-diatonic notes. But first… Tea!
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This hack is from the new single “Gudernes Vilje” by Danish artist Myrkur. The song is off her upcoming album “Folkesange”, and based on the first three singles, it promises to be a magical journey. Right, first things first. What is a non-diatonic note? Well, it is simply a note that is not in the scale. And as a result of it being outside the scale, it stands out (a lot!). And by the way, non-diatonic notes are also known as chromatic notes, so sometimes you’ll hear that term instead.
Now, just a quick warning. When songwriters and producers make music, they use scales for a very good reason: when you stick to a scale, all the notes work well together. So, when you venture out of the scale, you are heading into a musical minefield. I know that sounds dangerous, but it’s not, as long as you know where the musical landmines are. And the main one that most songwriters and producers land on, is the horrible clash between their non-diatonic note and their other instruments (which are playing notes in the scale at the same time). Yep, this clash is actually the sole reason that most songwriters and producers completely avoid non-diatonic notes, which in turn is one of the reasons behind the total predictability of 99.9% of music these days!
But, seeing as you’re here, you’re obviously wanting to learn how to make better music. And using non-diatonic notes is a vital part of making music that captivates people. Think about it like this, if you watch a movie on Netflix and it’s totally predictable, are you disappointed afterwards? Of course! We humans love stories, and songs are musical stories, so take your listeners on an exciting journey. You don’t want people to be able to sing along to your melodies the first time they hear them, right? And the best way to keep your melodies fresh, is to give your listeners a twist in the tale with a non-diatonic note.
So, how do you use a non-diatonic note to spice up a melody? Honestly, that’s actually the easy part, you just use any note that’s not in the scale you’re currently in. What’s not easy though, is what you do with your other instruments, so you don’t end up with that horrible clashing we spoke about earlier. Right, now let’s look at the Myrkur example for a solution to this problem. So, at 2:02 into the song “Gudernes Vilje”, she uses a non-diatonic note in her vocal melody. And that note is a ♭5. This deliciously spicy note is one of the most dissonant notes you get, so when she sings it right after a predictable 5, it’s the ultimate twist in the tale!
MIDI Screenshot: Melody with a ♭5 twist in the tale (dark notes below melody show C♯m→Amaj chord progression)
That’s great, but, what are her other instruments doing at that moment in order to prevent a horrible clash? They’re playing a ♭VImaj chord. And as she’s in the key of C♯ minor, that chord is an Amaj. The exact chord isn’t important though, the essential lesson to learn from her chord choice here is that it does not contain the notes on either side of the ♭5, i.e. the 4 and 5 of the key. The reason this is essential, is because the notes in your scale on either side of your non-diatonic note are the notes that will clash with it the worst. So, be sure to avoid those two notes in your other instruments while your melody is on the non-diatonic note.
And a completely different approach to avoiding this musical landmine, would be to actually use the non-diatonic note in the chord below as well. In this example, that non-diatonic note is a G, so she could have used an Em chord below it. And that Em chord would also be non-diatonic, because in the key of C♯ minor, it’s supposed to be Emaj. However, by replacing the G♯ in the chord with G, the chord becomes Em. This option sounds great too, but just a heads up, this approach makes things even more spicy!
Now, this hack has been all about spicing up a good melody in order to transform it into a great melody. But, if you’re not at the stage where you’re happy with your melodies yet, then simply use the Melody Checklist in our Songwriting & Producing PDF. It’s the ultimate list of do’s and don’ts for writing great melodies, so just follow that checklist to instantly improve your melodies!
Lastly, as we’re celebrating International Women’s Day this week, we wanna give a very special shoutout to all the women songwriters and producers in the Hack Music Theory community. We see you, we believe in you, and we’re so stoked and grateful that you’re here! And on that note, thanks for reading, and until next time, happy music making!
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