In the previous article, rhythm, melody, harmony and dynamics were identified as making up the material essence of music (1,2). It was also noted that rhythm is probably the most instinctive or “primitive” element as it is the one component of music that is felt instead of heard. Melody, on the other hand, is the most basic of all because it actually makes sound. While noise may be an integral part of rhythm, tones or pitches are required to convert sounds into melodies.
What is Melody?
Stringing together notes or sounds within a particular pitch and duration creates melody (1, 2). The link between one pitch and another is called “tonality” or “key”. It is believed by some that from the early beginnings of banging out a rhythm on a drum musicians began to incorporate sounds found in primitive instruments to separate pitch. Further discussion of this hypothesis may be found at http://www.greensych.ca (3). As time went on, gaps in pentatonic melodies were filled with tones that are known today as “leading tones.” Because these scales don’t have a “leading tone” they have their own unique sound. A “leading tone” is usually the 3rd and 7th notes of the diatonic scale.
It is thought early separations were probably octaves, fifths, and fourths (4). These pitches made up the early pentatonic scale of five tones. The major pentatonic scale is the basic scale of Chinese and Mongolian music. American Indian music provides an example of monophonic melody often sung in octaves. The singing is often gutteral and song styles strophic. The scales may seem to sound Asian (5). The pentatonic scale is also very common in Celtic music. The minor pentatonic is used in folk music. Jazz music commonly uses both the major and the minor pentatonic scales. Pentatonic scales are useful for improvisers because they work well over several chords diatonic to the same key.
The diatonic scale is most familiar as the major scale or the “natural” minor scale (or aeolian mode). It has the highest number of consonant intervals, and the greatest number of major and minor triads. It also is the only seven note scale that has just one tritone . The diatonic scale is an ideal resource for both melodic and harmonic music – it has lots of consonant triads, it has few dissonant intervals, and it is melodically smooth with just two consecutive-step sizes.
Another characteristic of a melody is it is structured by length and intensity much like a spoken sentence and gives the sounds soul (6). A melody begins, moves, and ends; it has direction, shape, and continuity. It may move up or down by step or leap, or may simply repeat the same note. At its simplest, a melody is the tune of a song. Sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to yourself. Notice that you just sang the melody. That was easy because that particular song is practically all melody. The melody is able to stand on its own without chords. If there are multiple melodies going on at once the relationship between melody and harmony becomes an important factor to understanding the composition.
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Classical melodies are most often tuneful and easy to remember and may have a folk or popular flavor. The melodies often sound balanced and symmetrical because they are frequently made up of two phrases of the same length. The second phrase, in such melodies, may begin like the first, but it will end more conclusively and it will be easier to sing.
A rhythmically organized sequence of single tones may be so related as to make up a phrase or “idea.” Extra notes such as slides or trills may be added to make the melody more complex and interesting. The range of a composition is the distance between the lowest and the highest notes in the series. Instrumental music often has the widest range or melody. This combination of leaps and rapid notes may be difficult to sing. The manner in which the melody is performed may vary as well. It may be sung or played in a smooth, connected style or in a short, or a detached manner. Words like tunes or song are often used to describe “compositions.” The harmony, rhythms or timber of a composition remain recognizable as the same piece. If the melody is changed it is generally considered to be a different composition. The one exception to this description is a typical performance of a jazz composition.
The shape of a melody refers to a literal geometric line that may be made if the notes were joined together. If the melody moves stepwise and is connected the movement is considered conjunct (1, 2). If it leaps from pitch to pitch within no natural connections it is considered disjunct.
When you listen to a song notice that, even without chords to support it, a melody seems to want to end on one particular note of the scale. Music from the Western culture has a tendency to gravitate back toward one central tone or chord before it sounds finished. These places are called cadences. As will be addressed in the next of this series, the cadences most familiar to us are primarily a function of harmony.
The Role of Melody in Today’s World
Western cultures generally attach the most importance to melody (4). Prior to the 20th Century pop music frequently featured “fixed” and easily recognizable frequency patterns. In the Modern era, new musical techniques emerged. 20th century composers use a greater variety of pitch resources and include the use of the chromatic scale in addition of the diatonic scale (3). Time has seen the importance of melody diminish with emphasis being placed on harmony and rhythm (3) http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.
In folk music the composer generally stays in the diatonic realm within one key center. These pitches are used to create melodies using the One/Four/Five chord progression. Adding the perfect fourth adds a bit of passionate “longing” to a pentatonic group. As time went on, gaps in pentatonic melodies were filled with tones that are known today as “leading tones.” Because these scales don’t have a “leading tone” it has it’s own unique sound. A “leading tone” is usually the 3rd and 7th notes of the diatonic scale.
Rockers often use folk music principles to create their music. Pentatonic colors in both major and minor provide groups of pitches that when applied to diatonic chords rarely sound off key because they are historically significant. With the advent of the Jazz combo and Rock music, Native American drumming has influenced American popular music (5).
Seventh chord tones emerge in the blues. Rockers also use it. Jazz players do it all, in all keys, styles and tempos. It probably is the most complex of the American music. Jazz tunes tend to use a few keys and different color tones to spice up common chord progressions (4).
While melody continues to be important in music with contrapuntal texture its value in other music is diminished with emphasis being placed on harmony and rhythm.
1. Leland, William. The Nuts and Bolts of Music – Part Two: Melody. http://pianoeducation.org.
2. The four elements of Music – Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, and Dynamics. http://www.essortment.com.
3. Bob Fink. Stages in the Evolution of Melody, Scales, and Harmony. http://www.greenwych.ca/stages.html
4. Narveson, Paul (184). Theory of Melody. ISBN 0-8191-3834-7.
5. Reublin, Rick& Maine, Bob. Native Americans & American Popular Music, March 2000.
6. Kliewer, Vernon (1975). “Melody: Linear Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music”, Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music, p.270-301. Wittlich, Gary (ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-049346-5.
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