From New World Encyclopedia

In music, a melody—also tune, voice, or line—is a series of linear events or a succession, not a simultaneity as in a chord (see harmony); however, this succession must contain a change of some kind and be perceived as a single entity (possibly 'Gestalt') to be called a melody. Most specifically, this includes patterns of changing pitches and durations, while most generally, it includes any interacting patterns of changing events or qualities. Melody can occur where there are interacting tonal patterns of changing directions and rhythms which are occurring in the temporal pattern.

Change is necessary for events and as they unfold, may or may not be related to each other. Melodies often consist of one or more musical phrases or motifs, and may be repeated throughout a song or piece in various forms. Melodies may also be described by their melodic motion, pitches or the intervals between pitches (predominantly conjuct or disjunct or with further restrictions), pitch range, tension and release, continuity and coherence, cadence, and shape.

A beautifully conceived melody with its phrases or motifs can contain the haunting quality of a spiritual element, an understanding of a higher quality of life compared to the worldly or sensual one. The succession of tones can be that connection between a relationship with God or a spiritual being that is different from the ego or worldly self. This quality can be represented in the substance and purity of a succession of musical tones which can stand as the basic or elemental foundation of all living things or the true self. This method of internalizing a relationship with God or a spiritual being is why a single melodic line may be more transparent and uplifting than numerous harmonic notes of a polyphonic design.

What melody does

In the more specific definition, applicable to the common practice period and popular music, melody may be contrasted with the accompaniment or the harmony it provides. As accompaniment implies, the melody is understood to be the focus of attention, with other parts providing background.

"The continuity and diegetic function of almost all vocal melody draw us along the linear thread of the song's syntagmatic structure, producing a 'point of perspective' from which the otherwise disparate parts of the musical texture can be placed within a coherent 'image'." In other words, a vocal melody line tells a story or narrative over the musical form, uniting and placing in context the various parts vertically and/or rhythmically.


"The essential elements of any melody are duration, pitch, and quality [timbre, texture, and loudness]." Such separate and single notes featuring duration, pitch, and quality are combined to become a musical whole which is what is commonly recognized by the listener. Each melody has a beginning, middle and end with ascending, descending and horizontal movements which become the melodic line. Melodic lines move by steps which can be as small as microtones as well as leaps which can be larger than an octave. The most singable melodies are those in which the steps and leaps are within a comfortable vocal range and the time values of the notes use a rhythm which corresponds to the thematic or emotional characteristic of the song. For example, the song, "Row Row, Row your Boat" is a song of tranquility wherein the rhythm of the melody is of a moderate pace. In the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the rhythmic speed is of a faster pace to mirror the excitement of the song. Notes in a melody can be sung or performed very smoothly or in a 'legato' manner; moreover, they can be performed or sung in a choppy way or in a 'staccato' manner. Finally, the melody can be organized in several unit patterns or 'phrases' which complete their melodic pattern in a 'cadence' or end of a phrase.

The melodies in most European music written before the twentieth century feature recurring "events, often periodic, at all structural levels" and "recurrence of durations and patterns of durations" are also important in twentieth century music.

While in the twentieth century, pitch includes "those aspects of sound that are classed as having highness or lowness," earlier music included almost exclusively sounds having "fixed and easily discernible frequency patterns." Composers have "utilized a greater variety of pitch resources than has been the custom in any other historical period of Western music." While materials from the diatonic scale are still used, the chromatic and twelve-tone scale became "widely employed."

Melodies in the twentieth century were increasingly reliant "upon the qualitative dimensions" with those dimensions "taking on roles that in pre-twentieth century music were almost exclusively reserved for pitch and rhythm." This means becoming an "element of linear ordering" rather than a highlight to "the more predominant pitch and rhythmic aspects." See 'Klangfarbenmelodie' and 'Musique concrète.


Different musical styles use melody in different ways. For example:

  • Rock music, melodic death metal, melodic music, and other forms of popular music and folk music tend to pick one or two melodies (verse and refrain or chorus) and remain with them; much variety may occur in the phrasing and lyrics. "Gino Stefani makes appropriation the chief criterion for his 'popular' definition of melody (Stefani 1987a). Melody, he argues, is music 'at hand'; it is that dimension which the common musical competence extracts (often with little respect for the integrity of the source), appropriates and uses for a variety of purposes, such as singing, whistling, dancing, and so on."
"Pop Goes the Weasel" melody
  • In western European classical music, composers often introduce an initial melody, or theme, and then create variations. Classical music often contains several melodic layers, called 'polyphony', such as those in a fugue, which is a type of counterpoint. Often melodies are constructed from motifs or short melodic fragments, such as the opening of Beethoven's Fifth. Richard Wagner popularized the concept of a leitmotif which is a motif or melody associated with a certain idea, person or place.
  • Pitch and duration, which are in most popular and classical music of the common practice period, are of primary importance in melodies. In the contemporary music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, pitch and duration have lessened in importance and quality has gained in significance, often in a primary way. Examples include musique concrete, klangfarbenmelodie, Elliott Carter's Eight Etudes and a Fantasy which contains a movement with only one note, the third movement of Ruth Crawford-Seeger's String Quartet 1931 (later reorchestrated as Andante for string orchestra) in which the melody is created from an unchanging set of pitches through "dissonant dynamics" alone, and György Ligeti's Aventures in which recurring phonetics create the linear form.
Melody from Anton Webern's Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30 (pp. 23-24)
  • Jazz musicians use the melody line, called the "lead" or "head," as a starting point for improvisation.
  • Indian classical music relies heavily on melody and rhythm, and not so much on harmony as the above forms do.
  • Balinese 'gamelan' music often uses complicated variations and alterations of a single melody played simultaneously, called 'heterophony'.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Delone, Richard. Aspects of 20th century music. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975. ISBN 0-130-49346-5
  • Edwards, Arthur C. Collection of musical compositions and research, 1951-1989. (archival material). OCLC 41949690
  • Middleton, Richard. Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990/2002. ISBN 0-335-15275-9
  • Randel, Don Michael and Apel, Willi. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-674-61525-5
  • Smits van Waesberghe, Joseph. A Textbook of Melody; a course in functional melodic analysis. Nijmegen, Netherlands: American Institute of Musicology, 1955. OCLC 182035


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