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A Complete Guide To Melody In Music


Melody is one of the most essential elements of music and most recognize element of a musical composition or a song.

Melody In Music

Melody In Music

Melody in music is basically the tune of a piece and the most interesting part of a piece of music. 

As a matter of fact, the melody is the most memorable line or part of a musical piece.

Generally, a complete musical composition will have different elements that include and are not limited to melody, rhythm, and harmony.

But in the midst of all these elements that made up a musical composition or a song, the melody will always stand out.

Moreover, the melody is the part of the music piece or song that we normally feel most and that typically finds its way to our head.

Of course, every music listener easily flows along with the melody of the music because of its uniqueness in the musical context.  

Obviously, we can recognize a good melody while listening to a song or musical composition. Also, we need to understand that melody has the power to emotionally affect us and influence how we feel.  

In this article, we will discuss what is melody in music and look into the characteristics of a melody.

Also, we will look into the building block of a melody as related to the structure of a melody. And lastly how to identify the melody in music.

In the end, we will realize that melody is a general concept shared by nearly all musical cultures at the global level.

What Is Melody In Music?

Melody is the common term used to describe the successions of single notes at different pitches which are rhythmically arranged to produce a musical effective tune.

Melody is formed in music by the combination of sounds or tones, which by their elevation, duration and succession serve as the foundation of a recognized tune in music.

Basically, the melody is the main element of music that captivates the listener’s attention most. So, a melody is sometimes referred to as the tune or the air of a song or instrumental composition.  

Although rhythm may be considered the first and the most important element of music, melody is certainly a close second.

The melody of music is the first thing that comes to mind whenever we are thinking about any piece of music. Generally, we can recognize nearly any common piece of music just from part of its melody.

Melody As Horizontal Alignment Of Tones

As stated above, the melody is made up of several tones of different pitches rhythmically strung together in a horizontal line. This is definitely the opposite to the vertical pattern of tones, one above the other that we have in harmony.

This is an indication that melody is a horizontal alignment of tones with defined pitch and suitable rhythm.

The rhythm makes a difference in melody production because the same succession of notes arranged in the same way will produce different tunes with different rhythm implementations.

Melody Can Be Simple Or Complex

Melodies in music composition or song can be in simple or complex form.  Usually, common song melodies are in simple form and they are occasionally repeated throughout a piece of music.

A piece of music may have a simple melody with a single musical idea or phrase developed with a few short notes and that is all.

However, more complex musical ideas can lead a composer to create more elaborate melodies.

For instance, a piece of music may comprise different melodies interlaced together with other elements to make the composition more complex.

Nevertheless, the melody is always unique and easily identifiable in any piece of music.

Melody In Western Music

The melody of different eras of western music is different in one way or the other. For instance, melody in the classical music era is usually repeated as a recurring musical theme that varies as the composition progresses.

In Western music of the late classical era and early romantic period, the melody is known to be the top notes of a group of chords. And the top notes of the chords are generally used to create the melody.

Typically, chords of different colours were used in relation to each other based on their sense of direction. Moreover, chords used were spaced to ensure that a required succession of notes or tones sits on top of each chord.

So, in duet, trio quartet, or chorus, notes with the highest pitch from every chord horizontally combined together to form a melody. 

And the higher voice usually carries the melody line while other voices supply the harmony underneath.

Element Of A Melody

To some extent, the melody is the driving force that makes most of us like our favourite song. Also, the melody is one of the core aspects of a piece or song that drive the listener’s emotion to the piece.

Now, let us ask one another a valid question that needs a valid answer about a melody.

So, what are the elements that made up the melody of our favourites musical piece or song?  

The valid answer to this is that melody in every piece of music is made up of two primary elements which are rhythm and pitch. Yes, melody in music is simply the combination of pitch and rhythm. 

Specifically, every note in a melody sounds with a particular pitch and persists for a certain duration. The duration aspect of every note in a melody is handled by the rhythm component of a melody.

So, every composer creates musical melodies either instrumental or vocal basically with these two elements: rhythm and pitch.

The Pitch

Typically, melodies are formed with the mixture and blend of defined pitches that come one after the other.

The pitch is the properties of sound that define how low or high a note sounds. The Pitch of a note is determined by the frequency of sound wave vibrations.

Notes with lower pitch are produced with a vibration of a musical medium at a low frequency.

On the other hand, notes with higher pitch are the product of a musical medium vibration at a high frequency.

Pitch is identified in music notation with a system that uses musical alphabets. This system of recognizing pitches gives an alphabet name to each of the notes in different pitches.

The Rhythm

Generally, rhythm is an essential element of music. Also, it is a very important element of a melody. Certainly, every melody is made up of a rhythm.

Rhythm is a component of a melody that is identified with the duration of a pitch. Basically, how different notes with different duration come together to form a melody is well established by a rhythm.

The duration in music defines how long or short a note is held. So, rhythm as an entity of a melody defines the way a time or duration is applied to every musical note in a melody.   

And the timing of a musical composition to form a regular beat pattern depends majorly on the rhythm input of the composition.

Typically, a total number of beats that are made up of a melody is derived from the sequential order of all notes with short and long beats patterns that made up a melody.

Each note in a melody carries a specific beat count and sometimes combines with other notes to form a regular beat count. This beat pattern with time is normally defined with the time signature in staff music notation.  

Rhythm Impact On Melody

Basically, rhythm dictates the melodic expression of a musical composition. 

With rhythm, we can project the same set of notes in different ways and this will greatly have an impact on the melody of a song.

For instance, the pitch of the same sequence can use different notes to vary the melody.

In the example below, the same series of notes with identical pitches are used with different notes’ lengths to create two different rhythms. The result here is the same series of notes and two rhythmic patterns.

So by changing the duration of a particular series of notes we can create different rhythm patterns and also melodies.

Other Elements Of A Melody

Basically, both pitch and rhythm are the primary elements of a melody. We still have secondary elements that have an impact on the melody creation.

Besides rhythm and pitch, other elements of melody that can be considered secondary are texture, intensity, Interval, and Range.

Characteristics Of A Melody In Music

There are thousands of melodies around the globe and each of them has a distinct character. The characteristics of every melody are distinct with its rhythmic structure, range, melodic motion, and contour.

In particular, musical notes in a melody move up and down to different pitches. Some movements are from a lower pitch to a higher pitch while some are from a higher pitch to a lower pitch.

This movement gives rise to what we call melodic motion. We will discuss melodic motion in the later section of this article.

Moreover, as the notes in the melody are moving upward and downward with small or wide steps along the melodic line, they give rise to melodic contour. Also, more discussion about melodic contour will take place later in this article.

Both melodic motion and melodic contour are basic characteristics of a melody and we are going to discuss them below.

Melodic Motion

Melodic motion is the term used to define the direction and interval of movement of a musical note from one pitch to the other in a melodic line.

Specifically, the pattern of pitch movement from one pitch to successive pitch in an upward or downward direction can be step-wise or skip-wise.  

Types of Melodic Motion

Melodic motion is one of the interesting characteristics of a melody and basically, we have two types of melodic motion.  The two types of melodic motion are conjunct melodic motion and disjunct melodic motion.

Conjunct melodic motion is characterized by a succession of notes in a stepwise movement. The interval between two consecutive notes is not greater than the whole step in conjunct melodic motion.

Basically, conjunct motion is either an upward or downward step.

Disjunct melodic motion is characterized by skip-wise movement between two consecutive notes. In disjunct melodic motion, the interval between subsequent notes is formed by a leap and is greater than a whole step.

 Basically, disjunct motion is either an upward or downward leap.

Melodic Contour

Melodic contour represents a shape derived from the upward and downward movement of notes in a melodic phrase as the melody travels from beginning to end.

Basically, melodic contour results from the pattern created by the relative up and down movement of a melodic line.

Melodic contour is a characteristic of a melody that allows musicians to physically identify the different patterns of the melody

The melodic contours have some familiar features with spoken speech. In particular, the relative changes in pitch known with spoken speech are generally specified as “stationary”, “rising”, or “falling”.

In the same manner, the melodic contour comes from its conjunct, disjunct, repeated, descending, or ascending motion.

Most of the melodies are created from different combinations of these types of motion which as a result formed the melodic contour of any melody.

Melodic contour has nothing to do with the rhythm of the melody. Majorly, it focused on the pattern formed by the pitches that make up the melody.

Specifically, one of the great concepts to create an interesting musical piece or song is to have a suitable melodic contour.

Indeed, the melodic contour is very important in melody creation. The reason has been that a well-paced and shaped melody will definitely produce a strong and outstanding musical piece or song.

Examine Melody Contour of a Melody

Melody In Music - Melodic Contour

Let us look at the melody of a popular nursery song “Twinkle, Twinkle little star” We can use a dot for each note when the notes go up the dot goes up. When the notes go down, the dot goes down. And when the note is repeated, the dots stay even.

We can see in the diagram above how the shape makes a big arch up and then slowly steps its way back down. If we connect the dots, we can see more clearly the shape or the Melodic contour.

Melodic range

The melodic range is simply the interval between the lowest and highest note of a musical piece melody. It defined the space the melody of music occupied inside of an audible pitches spectrum.

The melodic range has some impact on the overall character of a melody. For instance, melodies tend to have a little musical tension if their melodic range is narrow.

On the other hand, the wider melodic range will open a melody to a wider expressive range.

Generally, the possibilities for greater levels of tension rise as the melodic range of a piece of music widened.

Structure of a Melody In Music

The basic units that make up the melody of nearly every modern musical composition are phrases.

A phrase is a unit of a melody that has a complete musical sense when standing alone. It is often developed from a smaller musical unit like cells, motifs, or individual notes.

Of course, some melodies are created by bringing short thematic cells together. Longer melodic segments of some musical pieces usually consist of these cells.

Another unit of some melodies is a motif which is another smaller musical chunk sometimes used to create a bigger music idea.

Motif As A Basic Unit Of A Melody In Music

A motif also known as motive is the shortest musical idea with a detectable closure and recognized content.

So, the motif or motive is the smallest structural unit of the melody that possesses thematic identity. Notwithstanding, the motif can consist of one or more cells.

A motif as a single unit of a melody also has pitch and rhythmic contents. These components make motif identifiable and memorable when later used in a composition.

Usually, most of the melodies are made up of one or two motive ideas in repetitions. The typical example of a motif as a fragment of a melody can be found in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony No. 5 in C minor (op. 67).

As we can see from the sheet of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the motif used in the composition is just four notes.

A Phrase As A Unit of a Melody In Music

A phrase is a unit of melody that is made up of motives which is the shortest musical idea with its own musical closure known as cadence.

The cadence comes with different closure capacities and feelings just like a comma, semi-colon, colon, or a period in standard language.

Typically, several phrases may come together to form the multi phrase patterns of the melody. This is generally possible with a different sense of conclusiveness created by cadence at the end of each phrase.

In addition, phrases are a few bars like two or four-bar long. Although two-bar and four-bar phrases are common, creating two or four bar phrases is not the rule.

Example of A Melody Structure

For example, let us verify the melody structure of Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Phrases in this short melody are four with A–A–B–A structural form. The first A is the phrase of the piece and it ends with a half cadence.

The second A is the second phrase that repeats the first phrase and ends by resolving the phrase on a perfect cadence.

The B part of the melody starts the third phrase afresh and continues with different motif variations. The B part finally ends on the half cadence.

The last phrase is the third A which repeats the first phrase material of the melody. This particular phrase finally resolved on the tonic chord as a perfect cadence to end the melody.

As we have seen the melody in Ode to Joy is broken up into four sections referred to as phrases.

Note that not every melody will follow the structural pattern of Ode to Joy. However, every structure of the melody has to do with phrases and cadences.

At Phamox Music, we go all out for exactness and honesty. For this purpose, if by any means you found any possible glitch, be it factual, editorial, or something that we need to update, kindly contact us.


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