Lesson 1: Melody Writing with MIDI
Getting started with songwriting and music theory is daunting. The color scheme of the piano keyboard is a painless way to try out ideas with no “wrong” notes, and to learn some scale theory by ear. In this lesson, students use the white keys and black keys to write two short melodies.
Melody writing basics: Strategies for structuring a good melody and unblocking creative flow
- Learning basic scale theory: Identifying some commonly used scales; taking advantage of the piano’s color coding to easily play diatonic modes and pentatonic scales
Download the included Live Sets and open White Keys.als on each computer
Consult the extension resource with a list of well-known melodies you can play on just the white or just the black keys and demonstrate playing them (see below)
In the classroom
Step 1: Introduction – What is a Scale? Demonstrate how playing only the white keys creates musical-sounding note combinations. Do the same on the black keys.
Step 2: Warmup activity – Melodies in black and white. Student volunteers use the white and black keys to improvise over “So What” by Miles Davis.
Step 3: Creative Challenge Part One: The White Keys – students open White Keys.als and create short original melodies over the provided drum and bass tracks using the white keys only.*
Step 4: Creative Challenge Part Two: The Black Keys – students open Black Keys.als and create short original melodies over the provided drum and bass tracks using the black keys only.*
- Step 5: Wrap up – students share their melodies with their peers.
*Activity Option: More advanced students may continue to develop their short loops into full-fledged tracks.
Many well-known songs from around the world can be played using only the white keys or only the black keys on the piano. By sticking to one group of keys or the other, students can easily write musical-sounding melodies.
Warming up with “So What” by Miles Davis
Help hesitant students warm up to writing melodies by improvising to Miles Davis’ jazz classic “So What.” Play the A section on the white keys and the B section on the black keys.
Listen: “So What” by Miles Davis
Tip: Do this yourself, or have a student volunteer try it. They can be a non-pianist!
The A section starts at 0:37 and goes for 16 bars. It is followed by the B section for 8 bars. Then there is one more A section for 8 bars. This entire form repeats many times.
If you have taught modes before, it might be interesting to your students that the A section of “So What” is in D Dorian mode, and the B section in E-flat Dorian mode.
Real-World Uses for the White and Black Keys
For more examples of well-known melodies that can be played entirely on the white or black keys, see this list of songs.
Extension resource: Real-World Uses for the White and Black Keys
In this challenge, students create two short melodies over existing beats and basslines. One melody will use only the white keys, and the other will use only the black keys.
Push users: enable Chromatic Note Mode in Note Mode settings. This way, the lit pads will play the “white keys,” and the unlit pads will play the “black keys.”
- Students open the White Keys.als Live set. It contains a beat, a bassline, and an empty track where they will create their own melodies.
- Have each student record a four-bar melody on the empty track using only the white keys of the piano.
- If time permits, play each student’s melody for the class and ask for constructive feedback.
- Repeat the same process for the black keys challenge, using the Black Keys.als Live set and the black keys on the piano.
- Wrap up – students share their melodies with their peers.
White Keys – Live Set
Download: White Keys – Live Set
The White Keys Live Set contains four tracks:
A drum machine beat
A bassline in D dorian mode
Blank electric piano track with no MIDI clips where students record their white key melody
A one-bar melodic idea for students to use as inspiration for their white key melody. This track is muted, so students can turn the channel on if they want to hear it.
Black Keys – Live Set
Download: Black Keys – Live Set
The Black Keys Live Set contains four tracks:
A drum machine beat
A bassline in G-flat major
Blank synth lead track with no MIDI clips where students record their black key melody
A one-bar melodic idea for students to use as inspiration for their black key melody. This track is muted, so students can turn the channel on if they want to hear it.
Here are some suggested approaches to creating short melodies. The melodies are in D dorian mode and work with the white keys challenge.
Alternate the order of notes
Choose three notes and play them in a repeated rhythmic sequence, but with the notes in different orders.
Play a groove with two notes
Choose two notes and improvise a groove with them.
Repeat and move a scale
Move up or down the keyboard in four-note groups.