Theory of Melody Continued.

We can say that traditional music theory’s history lesson has given us a blueprint to create melodies and indeed it has but  that theory that we extract from the millions of melodies already written is that of imitation. If we could extract the theories of the past and present to see new ways to forge the future. This is what Schillinger did and left for us to test.

Schillinger’s approach is scientific. Music is broken down to the common denominators, Rhythm, the fastest duration, scales and harmony, the interval. (Schillinger’s theory is transferable to any temperament). This gives a visual approach to analysis not only are his hypothesis analyzable but also your own can be developed.
Here is a simple practical example: Say you have created a phrase or melody by intuition and you are looking for some ideas of where it may take you. Doing some simple inversions or retrograde or both give you some options. Along with permutations of phrases, expansions of scales etc.. Now it is still the artist’s choices that we hear and not what everyone would create using Schillinger’s system.

“Let this system be put to a real test. Let it penetrate into all fields of knowledge, education and production for at least the next generation, and then have the judgement passed upon it. The risk is negligible and the dividends too great to neglect.”

February 27, 1942              Joseph Schillinger

Though Schillinger’s theories have taken some detours along the way there are still many of us taking up his challenge.


  1. Frank P

    Thanks Phil.

    I think part of the resistance to a scientific or constructivist attitude towards creating music is that ‘it sounds too hard!’ as opposed to the romantic stereotype of dreamily waiting around for divine intervention. We’re taught to trust instincts and value ‘what comes easily’ as being somehow more natural and authentic than what’s contrived by science – in spite of the fact we live in a world enjoying advances made possible by the most painstaking scientific work.

    Schillinger’s approach is not binary – it’s not all scientific and predeterministic versus fully intuitive and improvisatory. That’s an unfortunate misreading that continues to this day. I think his goal was to provide tools for people to build upon and supplement – not replace – their innate musical ideas and abilities.

    Schillinger’s toolkit largely revolves around high-school math – basic algebra – as a straightforward way to express musical quantities more clearly than traditional music notation. And It’s not far removed from today’s software-based ‘piano rolls’ and ‘wave clip’ views – that are, ironically, less often criticized for being ‘too-scientific’.

    Counter to another misreading that his methods produce only one kind of music, Schillinger seems to go out of his way to employ popular music examples of his day side-by-side with classical ‘art’ music and regional folk musics.

    I don’t think genre or musical ‘stature’ was especially important to Schillinger; he seems to have scoped-out the commonality of music across cultures and eras and devised tools to extract those principles and combine them in virtually countless ways – always based solely upon the desires of the musician.