What is Melody in Music?
What is melody in music? Well, the simplest definition for melody is – a melody is a series of pitches that form a tune. Another way of thinking of melody in music is to define a melody as “the part you remember or sing along to” in a piece of music. Most people do not sing the drumbeat, or the bass line, or even the part of another melodic instrument, but they do sing, rather loudly at times, the melody or main musical idea of the music.
For Western European musical tradition, the melody is the main ingredient in the music, it is what everything else is based around. The melody determines how the other elements of music can interact and support the melody. For example, the harmony and tonality of the music are created to accompany and make the melody be the star and focal point through the key and the chords that are used.
There are several musical terms that can help you to appreciate and describe a melody. These come under the broader headings of instrument or voice, contour, motion, register, range, phrasing, articulation, and ornamentation. These terms will all be explained in further detail in this article.
Melody in Music Definitions
Instrument or voice
A melody can only be performed by a pitched instrument or voice. In a single piece of music, the melody can change between instruments or voices in different sections. In “Bolero” by Ravel, the melody is repeated several times, but each time it is repeated, another instrument from the orchestra has a turn. Listen to the excerpt and try to order the instruments that perform the melody.
The melodic contour is the shape of the melody. If you were to use the musical notation or score of the melody you would be able to see the shape of the melody by joining the note heads together. The contour of a melodic line can be described by using words such as smooth, flowing, jagged, jumpy, angular, repetitive, arching, scale like, steep, shallow, as well as many more.
The motion of a melody can be described in several ways. Two main terms are conjunct and disjunct. A conjunct melody is one that moves in steps, and a disjunct melody moves in leaps. In a melody, both of these can be stepping or leaping either by ascending or going higher in pitch, or descending meaning that it is getting lower in pitch.
Often a melody is made up of both conjunct and disjunct sections. It might be that, for example, the verse of a song is more conjunct and sung in steps, whereas the chorus could be predominantly disjunct and sung in leaps.
Register of a Melody
The musical definition of register is the height of the pitch that an instrument performs in. For example, a violin can perform in a higher register than the cello, and the cello can perform higher than the double bass.
To describe the register of a melody there are two main terms that can be used – treble or bass. A simple way to remember this is to think of a piano. Roughly in the middle of the piano is a note called “Middle C”. Anything above or to the right of this note is in the treble register, and any note below or to the left is in the bass register.
Describing the register of a melody can go even further by adding the terms upper, mid or lower to treble or bass. For example, a melody performed by a piccolo could be described as played in the upper treble register. Another example could be the bassoon performing a melody in the mid to low bass register.
A great example of a melody being performed in several different registers is the piece by Greig from the Peer Gynt Suite – In the Hall of the Mountain King. In this music, the melody is repeated by several instruments, in the beginning the melody is performed in a very low bass register, and as the music progresses, the register of the melody changes with each different instrument. Try mapping the register of the melody in the music.
Range of a Melody
The range of a melody can be defined as the distance between the lowest and the highest note being performed. It is like the range in a set of numbers or statistics. The range of a melody can be described as narrow, medium, an octave, wide, very wide, or extensive. A good example of a melody that has a narrow range would be in the children’s nursery rhyme – “Hot Cross Buns”. This simple melody uses only three pitches, and therefore has a very narrow range.
A song with a medium range would be “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. This melody has a range that does not go beyond the octave. An example of an instrument with the potential for an extensive range is the piano. From its lowest note, to its highest spans 7 octaves!
Melody and Phrasing
A musical phrase can be either melodic or rhythmic. A phrase is like a small musical sentence. To begin to hear a phrase, try listening to a singer performing the melody. When they take a breath, or there is a slight pause, that is the end of the phrase. An instrumental phrase can often go longer than one that is sung, simply because the instrument, such as a violin, does not need to take a breath!
When describing a phrase first listen for how many bars in length it is, is it being performed in 2,3,4,5,6,7, 8, or any number of bars long? To do this you firstly need to work out the time signature. Once you know how many beats are in the bar, you can count the phrase length.
Another way to describe a phrase is by using words such as even, balanced, or symmetrical. A phrase that is even can be divided in half and each half is the same. Phrases that are uneven, unbalanced, or asymmetrical are different on either side. These types of phrases might start high, then end low, or they might be heard in the first bar of the phrase, and then there is a longer pause before the next phrase.
The definition of melodic articulation is the manner or way a single note is performed. In Western music, there are four common musical articulations that are used- staccato, legato, tenuto and marcato.
Staccato – short and detached
Legato – smooth and well connected
Tenuto – holding the note for its full value or note length
Marcato – to play a note loudly and with force
Composers will often use many different techniques to create interest and variety in a melody. The technique used will be different, depending on the instrument performing. Some common melodic embellishments include – grace notes, appoggiaturas, trills, slides, tremolo, vibrato, and many more.
Grace note – an extra note added as an embellishment and is not essential to the melody
Appoggiatura – is Italian for “to lean upon”. It means for an auxiliary note to be stressed before the main note that is in the melody or chord
Trill – a rapid alternation between two neighbouring notes
Slide – a joining of two or more notes by “sliding” in an upward or downward motion
Tremolo – a rapid movement across the string with the bow (or on the guitar, by the pick)
Vibrato – a slight wavering of the pitch
Singers will often use a variety of other melodic devices to make the melody interesting. A common vocal ornamentation is to use melisma. Melisma means to sing more than one pitch on a syllable. Another type of ornamentation often used by opera singers, and some pop singers, is the cadenza. This is to sing a very fancy ending to a section of the music. Another way to describe a cadenza is “vocal gymnastics”! It is an opportunity for the vocalist to show off their skills, range, and tricks at the end of a song or section to create a dramatic effect. Watch the clip below to hear some examples of a cadenza.
Why is Melody Important in Music?
In Western music tradition, most people would agree that the melody is the most important part of the music. The melody, and the series of pitches that it consists of, determines how all the elements of music are used. Below is a few ways that melody effects another element of music.
Melody and Tonality – a melody is usually created from a selected key or scale. The scale or key signature used is the tonality of the music. Is the melody in a major or minor key? Is it without a tonal center? Is it performed in a pentatonic scale or even in a medieval mode? All these questions can be answered by studying what notes are used in the melody.
Melody and Harmony – tonality and harmony are very intricately linked. The tonality of the melody will determine and drive the harmonic accompaniment to support the melody. The key signature used will help shape the chords used by the other instruments to enhance the melody and give it a framework to be heard within.
Melody and Rhythm – the arrangement of the notes of different lengths determines to how the melody can be supported by the beat or pulse. This in turn dictates the time signature and other rhythmic devices in the music. A melody that features a lot of short notes, might be contrasted with chords that are longer and sustained, for example.
Melody and Form – the different melodies in a piece of music, and how they are arranged is what shapes the overall structure of the music. A pop song for example, often has two main melodies – one for the verse and one for the chorus. How these parts or sections are arranged is the form or structure of the song.
Melody and Texture – the melody, along with the accompanying instruments makes up the overall density or texture of the music. If the melody is accompanied by a guitar and keyboard playing chords, and a bass guitar performing the bass line and a drum keeping and maintaining the beat, then the overall density of the song might be quite light in texture. The melody could also be performed as the only part of the music, as a single line, this would be a very thin texture.
Melody and Timbre – the melody and on what instrument it is performed can create a quite different tone color or unique sound. Each voice and instrument have their own individual sound or timbre and the combination of these sounds and how they perform a melody contribute to the overall sound of the music.
Melody and Dynamics – the volume at which the melody is performed can create different moods or feelings. If a melody is performed quite softly, the feeling could be more peaceful in nature, whereas a melody performed very loudly could have the opposite effect of spurring people onto victory or into battle. Read about Dynamics here
Music Appreciation and Melody
To appreciate a piece of music, or to study and analyze a piece of music, often the most obvious place to start is with the melody. The melody is what every other part of the composition hinges from, it where each of the other elements of music derive their accompanying parts.
Next time you hear a piece of music, try taking note of the different features of the melody and how it is performed. Even better still, in your next performance, think about how you can add variety and personal flair to the melody by adding or subtracting some of the different characteristics. You could maybe perform the melody in a different register, or try a different instrument, or maybe adding in some different embellishments!
Until next time
Julia from Jooya