A melody is the heart and soul of a piece of music.
It is the tune, the cadence, the recognizable progression and evolution of a song.
It is the most memorable part of the song, the element that lingers and keeps us coming back for more.
When we talk about the songs that we can’t forget, it is usually their melody we are reacting to.
Melodies have a long history, with some historians arguing that it may have predated language.
Archeologists uncovered the earliest known melody, “Hurrian Hymn No. 6” on a clay tablet, and believe it dates far into the past, possibly to the 14th century B.C.
Melody and music theory flourished in the creative hotbed of the European Baroque era, between 1600 and 1750.
Bach was one of the preeminent early experimenters, and his techniques endure to this day.
What is a Melody?
Melody, along with harmony and rhythm, are the three main components of music.
Both the human voice and pitch-producing instruments can create melodies.
Most popular rock, jazz, and pop compositions consist of different instruments forming the song’s melody in their own unique way.
When you have multiple instruments or vocalists playing or singing different melodies at the same time, we call it a polyphony.
A melody is a linear sequence of notes that come together to produce a recognizable progression.
A melody is a combination of pitch and rhythm.
When you organize a series of notes horizontally in a recognizable unit, you are constructing a melody.
A melody is typically made up of several musical notes and can be radically simple or intricately complex.
Many songs consist of both a vocal melody and an instrumental melody, but you’ll also be familiar with songs that are built upon one or the other.
The introduction of the Belle and Sebastian song “I Fought in a War” is a resonant example of a vocal melody, whereas the bluegrass ditty “Little Sadie” demonstrates the impact of an exclusively instrumental melody.
Components of a Melody
Melodies are made up of smaller components, called phrases.
A phrase consists of anywhere from 2 to 10 notes and can form a “line” in a classical pop or rock song.
It is common for a chorus to contain 4 distinct phrases.
A motif is an even smaller unit of melody and describes a brief melodic line.
Motifs are short fragments or repetitive components that can be combined to form the basis of a melody or to add a flourish or texture to an existing melody.
Pitch, Rhythm, Duration
Three fundamental elements of melody are pitch, rhythm, and duration:
Pitch is the audio vibration produced by an instrument or voice.
It represents how high or low a given note is.
Another key element is a melodic range, which describes the distance between the lowest and highest pitches in a melody.
Narrow ranges are easier to execute, while a wider range can be more complex and challenging to pull off.
A melody is a succession of pitches in rhythm.
Rhythm can be simply defined as a piece of music’s pattern in time.
Rhythm can technically exist without melody, like a series of drumbeats, but melody cannot exist without rhythm.
Duration describes how long a certain note or pitch is played for.
These can be divided into lengths like a whole note, which is four beats, down to half notes, quarter notes, and beyond.
Melodies generally have what we call a melodic motion.
There are two main types: conjunct and disjunct.
A conjunct motion is when a note progresses by whole or half steps, or by one scale degree to the next, with shorter breaks in between.
Conjunct melodies feature a phrase that rises and lowers in pitch in a stepwise manner.
An example is a melody that follows a linear and clearly defined scale, like the major scale.
A disjunct motion has larger intervals, above a 2nd, between notes and can be more challenging to play.
There are larger jumps between the notes in the melody, with larger interval skips.
In a disjunct motion, sequences of adjacent notes are less frequent, and the combination of notes may be unexpected or jarring.
A mixed motion is a middle ground between disjunct and conjunct motions.
Switching between the two modes can create contrast and dynamism.
A parallel motion describes two melodies moving together in an ascending or descending manner, keeping the same intervals between phrases.
An oblique motion describes one melody staying on the same note while the other melody moves away from the original note, creating an interesting and distinct contrast.
Building a Melody
There is no one hard and fast way to build a melody.
Lyrical melodies can be built around one theme, word, or lyric whereas an instrumental melody can riff off of just one note, key, or scale.
Melodies are often either ascending or descending in evolution.
An ascending melody features a sequence of pitches that go up, or ascend, in tone and frequency.
A descending melody gets progressively lower in pitch throughout the melodic phrase.
Melodies crafted from a major scale will sound more uplifting and cheerful, whereas melodies constructed on a minor scale will sound more emotive and melancholic.
Many beginners start building off the key of C major, which is one of the easiest to get used to.
You should also educate yourself on common chord progressions, which you can build your own beat around.
Melody Becomes You
Now that you know the basics of melody, you can go out there and start making your own.
We suggest revisiting some of your favorite songs and focusing intently on the melody and its emotional impact.
May we suggest these songs for starters?
- “Back on the Chaing Gang” by The Pretenders
- “Go-Go Round” by Gordon Lightfoot
- “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” by Simon & Garfunkel
- “Rebel, Rebel” by David Bowie
- “I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James
- “Sometimes, Always” by Jesus & Mary Chain
- “Crimson & Clover” by Tommy James & The Shondells
- “Walk of Life” by Dire Straits
Take an extended break and go get melodic!
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