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The General Overview Of The Melodic Contour 


Melodic Contour 

Melodic contour is all about the pitch. The pitch is the higher or lower sound that every musical note would make.

Different pitches, high and low, are generally used to create a melody. This is normally done by rhythmically combining different notes. The most noticeable example is the succession of high and low-pitched notes.

A shape is usually formed from the up and down movement of these different pitches. This shape is a kind of visual representation of a melody called a melodic contour.

A melodic contour is the shape of a melody formed from the pattern created by the up and down movement of notes in a melody.

In fact, most of the melodies we know can be dignified by their movements. The unique contours they create also make them unique.

In this article, we will take an in-depth look at the melodic contour. We will also discuss possible melodic contour patterns that we can have. But, the first thing we will do is to answer the question, “What is melodic contour?”

What Is Melodic Contour

A melodic contour is formed by the ascending and descending movement of tones. This happens in relation to their pitches without regard to the duration of the actual notes.

The ascending and descending of pitches gives every good melody its expressive power.

Actually, the melodic contour is formed by linking every pitch, high or low, together.

The pitches here are all the pitches that make up the melody from the beginning to the end. It also carved out the shape formed by linking the pitches together.

The resultant shape is a melodic contour and is a visual representation of the melody. We will see some examples of that later in this article.

Specifically, the shape of every melody is visible with the right notation on the music sheet.

This is very obvious because notes go up and down in a particular direction from the start to the end of a melody.

This direction is generally known as a melodic motion. This creates a pattern called a melodic contour that defines the shape of the melody.

“Melodic contour” is one of the terms used to describe the characteristics of the melody. This is a very interesting term to know.

Basically, every good melody will have a distinct shape that can be used to describe it. These shapes, called melodic contours, are in different basic patterns and defined shapes.

Melodic Direction

Melodic Contour

Melodic contour is used to describe the tonal movement and direction of the melody. The notes that make up the melody move in different ways and directions.

The way melodies move has already been discussed in melodic motion, which is all about step, skip, and leap.

In this section, we will discuss the directions in which the melody moves. Some notes in the melody ascend or descend, while some stay at the same level of pitch or move in a repeated style.

Typically, melody can move up or down or remain on the same plane, either at a higher pitch, a middle pitch, or a lower pitch. These are known as ascending, repeated (or steady), and descending, respectively.

  • Ascending: If the pitches are going up, this means that the notes of the melody are going higher. And the melody is getting higher too. The notes can be moved up in three ways: step-wise, skip-wise, or with a leap.
  • Repeated: The notes continue at the same pitch, and the pitches are just the same as the melody. This movement is also known as horizontal movement.
  • Descending: The notes are going down to the lower pitches. As the pitches are going down, the melody is also getting lower. Also, the notes can be moved down in three ways: step-wise, skip-wise, or with a leap.

When we start putting two or more of these together, we will come up with a melodic contour pattern.

Melody Contour Patterns

There are nine different melodic contour patterns from the way the pitches move in music.

Certainly, the pitch of a note can be high, medium, or low. And the melody contour pattern is typically based on how the notes move in the melody.

Do they go higher, lower, or keep moving? Again, are they going higher and then coming down or are they continuing to move and later go higher or lower?

As we can see from the diagram above, the basics of this pattern are rising, flat, and falling.

We have other melodic contour patterns. These are formed when two of the basic melodic contour patterns come together. These are “Rising-Flat”, “Rising-Falling”, Flat-Rising”, Flat-Falling”, “Falling-Rising” and “Falling-Flat”.

Every melody is a combination of two or more melodic contour patterns. This can be in different formats and order.


The melody contour pattern is a movement of a melody from a lower pitch to a higher pitch.

The first diagram in the top left corner shows that it’s a rising contour. Thus, it is going step by step upward. Let us say, from C to D to E to F to G.

This is basically an ascending melodic direction.


Rising-Flat Melodic Contour Pattern

This pattern occurs when the melody ascends the pitch and keeps moving at the point of a high pitch.

This is basically an ascending and repeated melodic direction.


This occurs when the notes move in several steps to a higher pitch. And at a point of climax, which can be the highest pitch, the melody is coming down.

The one on the top right shows that rising and falling where the pitch would go up and then down.

This is basically an ascending and descending melodic direction.


The flat pattern is created by repeated notes that remain at the same pitch.

The flat melody contour pattern is a same-pitch melody pattern.

Like playing the same note with different note values within a composition. This is basically a repeated or steady melodic direction.


That is what happened when the melody maintained the same pitch and, at a point, began ascending. The notes remain at the same pitch for a certain period of time and then move in an ascending direction.

This is basically a repeated and ascending movement.


This pattern is the transition from repeated to descending movement.

It happens when notes move at the same pitch for a while and later move downward, we have flat-falling.

This is basically a repeated and descending movement.


This is a situation in which the notes of the melody keep coming down.

It is basically the melody movement in descending motion. The direction of the notes, as we can see, is downward.

As we can see from the main diagram above, every movement in the melody contour pattern is an option for a melodic contour.

Specifically, different melodic contour patterns come together to form different melodic contour types.

The resulted melodic contour can take the shape of a hill, mountain, plateau, plain, or even a valley.


Falling-Rising Melodic Contour Pattern

This basically happens when notes are descending the pitch and, at some point, make a U-turn and start to ascend the pitch.

Imagine it as running the musical scale from higher to lower pitch and running it back from lower to higher pitch.

That is like going from the octave to the tonic and then from the tonic back to the octave.

This is basically a descending and ascending melodic direction.


Falling-Flat Melodic Contour Pattern

This pattern occurs when the melody moves gradually from the point of a high pitch to the point of a low pitch and remains at that point. This is basically a descending and repeated melodic direction.  

FIG; Excerpt from Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro

Example Of Melodic Contour

Melodic Contour

Absolutely, the melodic contour occurs from the movement of notes from one pitch to the other in a melody line.

In a nutshell, the melodic contour is the pattern created by the pitches of every successive note that make up a melody line.

And as we would see soon in the following examples, the melodic contour is the direction that a melody of a piece of music follows.

The simple example we will use to describe melodic contour is the melody of the famous nursery song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”.

The structure of the melody of this song comprises four phrases. If we represent each note of the first two phrases with a dot, we would have the shape below.


Note that this can only be achieved without giving any consideration to the duration of each note. That means without giving other elements of the melody which is the rhythm any regard.

As we can see from the diagram above, the dots would represent the musical pitch. And by connecting those dots, we would have the melodic contour.

Actually, the notes for the songs in the musical staff are G-G-D-D-E-E-DC-C-B-B-A-A-G on the key of G major.

So if we connect those dots together, we will have the visual of the melodic contour.

From the diagram above, we can see the red line connecting the dots. So we have it from where it starts on G flat and jumps up. So, it rises, then a little flat, and finally falls.

Different Types of Melodic Contour

Melodic contour comes in different types. However, our focus in this article will be limited to the four most common types of melodic contours.

These five are listed below:

  • Arch
  • Inverted Arch
  • Wave
  • Pivotal

With these basic melodic contours, we have virtually infinite prospects to create different melodic phrases. Also, most of the melodies if not all that we know will fall under the combination of these types of melodic contours.

Arch Melodic Contour

The arch contour occurs when a melody starts from a particular pitch and gradually rises to the highest pitch. The highest pitch can actually be the midpoint of the melody. And at that highest pitch, the melody gradually comes down.

As shown in the diagram above, the notes of the melody line of the piece started on * and gradually go up the pitch to the *. This is from a lower pitch to a high pitch. And as it reached the high point of the pitch, it started coming down again.

In arch melodic contour, the highest note is usually somewhere near halfway point of the melody.

Moreover, the arch contour does not necessarily need to be symmetrical. Also, the note at the starting point of the arch and the one at the final point of the arch do not have to be on the same pitch.

What matters is going up and coming down the melody line and not the exact points of the arch. Basically, the pitch of the notes in the melodic line goes up and later down.

The arch contour is very useful in creating tension and releasing the tension in the music. The section of the arch that goes up gradually in pitch will somehow increase the tension of that section of the piece.

On the other hand, the arm of the arch that comes down gradually will lower the level of that section.

Inverted Arch Melodic Contour

The inverted arch contour is the opposite of the arch contour. It is sometimes referred to as the mirror image of the arch contour.

The inverted arch melodic contour is formed when notes in the melodic line gradually come down in pitch. This is from the higher pitch to the lower pitch.

Then somewhere at the midpoint of the melody, the notes started to go up gradually to end the phrase.

And like the arch contour, the final point of the arch does not matter but the pitch that goes down and then up.

As we can see in the diagram above, the pitch of the phrase starts out from a high point and goes down then climbs up again.

The melodic phrase of the contour will sound calm as well as relaxed as it descends the pitch. However, it will somehow induce an increase in tension as the note starts moving up toward the final point of the arch.

The inverted arch melodic contour is very useful to create an interesting feel in music. Because the climax of that section of the piece can come at the very end of the arch as well as the bottom of the arch.  

Wave Melodic Contour

The wave contour is a special contour because it’s like a serial chain of the arch and inverted arch contour.  Basically, the wave contour has a pitch that goes up and down several times.

The diagram above shows a typical wave contour

Pivotal Melodic Contour

This is a kind of contour that is formed when the melody line involves a pivot note that other notes revolve around.

This can be a particular pitch that other pitches of the melody will be moving up and down around. So when we have a melodic line that revolves around a certain pitch we would have the pivotal contour.

The pivot contour is like a wave contour but the ascending and descending of notes around the central notes is slightest. Moreover, the notes keep returning to the central note again and again.

The pivotal contour usually comprises a lot of repeated notes.

Final Thought

Generally, the melody is the basic element of music and the most memorable part of any piece of music. Melodies are created by combining notes in several pitches together. And as the melody moves from start to finish, it rises in pitch sometimes and falls in pitch some other times.  

The rise and fall in pitch of every melody creates the melodic contour we are discussing. Basically, melodic contours focus only on pitches of every note that make up the melody and not the duration of the notes.

Melodic contour can be used to describe the melody of a composition. And they can determine the uniqueness of any melody with its melodic contour along with other elements like rhythm and melodic ranges.

Lastly, longer melodies are made by combining different types of melodic pattern and contour.

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