An effective and quite creative method for composing/improvising strong melodies would be to connect it with the visual artist's technique of contour drawing.
In contour drawing, the artist looks at the landscape (say mountains and hills on the horizon) and closely inspects the line that is created by the edge of the land where it meets the sky. As they put pencil to paper, they will not draw the mountains or sky, but will simply draw the shape of the line where the two meet. Even by drawing a simple line they will accurately define much of the composition.
This type of drawing technique is very common in quickly sketching out an outline of any object just by defining the lines that create the boundaries. By adding more lines they can illustrate the contour in a more detailed fashion.
So think about this concept as it relates to melodic motion and contour in music. For musicians, the melodic contour is similar to the line. Does it ascend? Descend? Is there a climax? Is it smooth (conjunct, stepwise motion)? Or is it jagged (by leaps)? Maybe there is a repetition of a sequence of lines (notes) that repeat?
EXERCISE: 1. Look at the line drawing of this mountain. Pick a line where it starts on the left side (maybe start at the horizon.) Then let your eyes travel from left to right at a steady tempo of your choice. In your mind's ear choose a starting pitch. As you follow the line, audiate or sing in your head a melody that follows's the artist's line. Try to follow it all the way to the end of the line. The rhythm can vary and this won't be determined by the line. Phrasing is important so somewhere on your eye's journey take a rest when the phrase feels like it comes to a musical pause. Then continue. Depending on the tempo of your eyes you may have 1-4 phrases (perhaps more if you are moving slowly.)
2. Once you finish try this with a different line in the drawing. You can also try it in retrograde (going from right to left.)
3. Finally, apply this to your voice or instrument. Use this drawing or the lines on any piece of artwork. Record your results and listen back.
What do you think? Pretty interesting right? It is sort of like reading a score but more creative since you are forced to add the notes and phrasing. But the melodic shape is set in stone by the drawing. The final step is to consider this concept as you play composed or improvise melodies. Picturing a line in your head as you play will make you sensitive to this musical element.
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