There are three main constituents to a piece of music or a song. They are Rhythm, Harmony, and Melody. And Melody is usually the most recognizable part of music. And if someone came to you and asked you for a tune, you would probably hum the melody line.
But what is melody in music? And how does it relate to the rest of the parts that are going on around it?
Is it Always Good?
Let’s use an analogy here. Take a novel. There is a main character, but does that mean you automatically like them? Not always. Sometimes this main character is written in such a way that we don’t like them.
Now, music isn’t quite like that. No one writes a piece of music, so the listening public will deliberately not like it. I am just making the point. Just because it is the main part, or in terms of the book, the character, doesn’t mean we will like it. What appeals to one might not to another. So the answer is no, the Melody isn’t always good to all of us.
Conjunct and Disjunct Melodies
We can describe what we think of a melody by using one of those two terms. If we like the melody and consider it pleasant, we can call it Conjunct. However, if it is unpleasant to us, then we call it Disjunct.
In some ways, that can be recognized. In a conjunct melody, the notes, or pitches, tend to be closer together and have a pleasant flow. In a disjunct melody, they might leap around, up and down, and feel awkward and ungainly.
Most people prefer the main character of a book to be a nice person. Similarly, that is why we prefer conjunct melodies to disjunct ones.
We Can Hear a Melody… But Can We See It?
You might think not, but we can. To “see” a melody, we use melodic contour; if you were to draw a graph using the notes as the plotting points, that would give you melodic contour.
You can then see the “shape” of the melody. If the notes are close together, then it is likely to be a conjunct melody. But if there is a large space between the pitches, it is probably a conjunct melody.
Of course, you can see this by looking at the written music below:
However, that is not a rule set in stone
The first two notes of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” hardly what you would call a disjunct melody, prove that. And they are an octave apart.
Furthermore, Conjunct melodies are also the most memorable. They are often one of those tunes that you might hear and end up singing all day. And that is not just a modern phenomenon.
Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and so many others wrote music that is what we might call conjunct. The music we instantly recognize and can hum along to. In today’s world, there have been some great examples. Leonard Bernstein, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. And in the pop world, the masters, of course, Lennon and McCartney.
What is Melody in Music – A Basic Definition
Let’s just pursue the visual treatment of the melody we were just discussing once more. In Harmony, the notes are organized, displayed, and played vertically. The notes are stacked on top of each other. Some would refer to them as chords.
Melody, on the other hand, is not a vertical stacking of notes. It is a horizontal flow. You can then describe harmony as being visually vertical while the melody is horizontal.
Melody Is Just a Series of Notes
That is all it is. And not a wide range of them either. A Melody could never be a single note. You could never hold a note on a keyboard for four minutes and call that a melody. Anything less than about three notes would be stretching it a bit to call it a melody. So, what makes a good melody?
There are a few simple things that can help you learn how to write a memorable melody.
- It should be simple and easy to remember.
- The notes should be in an order that ensures it is a conjunct melody.
- There should not be random notes that do not follow a pattern or are hard to predict.
- The melody needs to be clearly separate from any other notes surrounding it, i.e., the harmonies.
Melody Lines Are Built
A Melody is usually composed of small segments that repeat each other. These are known as Phrases and Motifs. So, let’s take a brief look at what those are.
As the word suggests, these are just phrases of music. They are often a small part of the melody. This could be anything from two or three notes or up to a dozen. You can define it as a section of the melody that is a complete part on its own. But what do I mean by a “complete part”?
It is complete because there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is also a complete part because it is easy to recognize from the other phrases that might be around it. It, therefore, plays a major part in defining the melody.
The end of a phrase is also usually recognizable because there is a sequence of chords and notes that form the close. Or in other words, it ends with what is called a cadence.
This is another small part of the melody. They are possibly less connected to the melody than a phrase might be. But they often form an essential part of the melody itself.
A Motif gives the piece of music or song what is known as a thematic identity. It is often a very small piece of the music but an instantly recognizable one.
A good example is the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Just four notes, but you immediately know what you are listening to. A small fragment of the music that repeats that is significant to the composition. That is a Motif.
Different Types of Motifs
There are three different types of Motifs – Melodic, Harmonic, and Rhythmic. Coincidentally, the three elements that determine the context of the music, as I said right at the beginning.
Some Famous Motifs
- The Kick drum and Snare or Hand Claps at the beginning of “We Will Rock You” by Queen is a good rhythmic motif.
- The theme music from the movie “Jaws” by John Williams is a motif that tells you that you are on the menu for our fishy friend.
There are hundreds. The Motif forms an important part of the melody, and if you get that right, then you’ve probably got a memorable song.
We All Know It as “The Tune”
That is what most people would say, and of course, they would be right. It is the piece of the music the composer has built his song around. The part they want us to remember. The theme that we spend all day singing when we hear it.
But, there are important elements that create melody in music and build it, as we have seen. It can’t be just one note or a sound. It has to have a theme and a purpose.
Serving the Melody
Understanding melody, how it is created, and what it does is an important part of writing good music. Some musical scholars say that the only purpose for rhythm and harmony is to serve the melody.
Johann Kimberger (1771), one such scholar, remarked, “the goal and proper enterprise of music is melody.” If you want to extend your study of Melody and Musical Theory, these might help.
- The Shaping Forces in Music: An Inquiry into the Nature of Harmony, Melody, Counterpoint, and Form
- Melody in Songwriting
- Melody In Music
Want to Learn More about Music Theory?
Our experts can help with that. Have a look at our helpful articles on A Complete Guide To Major Scales, A Guide To The Chromatic Scale, A Quick Guide To Species Counterpoint, Relative vs Parallel Minor, Diatonic Scales, What Is Negative Harmony, and What Is AABA Form In Music for more useful musical information.
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What is Melody in Music – Final Thoughts
If we speak in general about melody, it is a kind of foundation. It doesn’t form the complete piece, but it is its basis – the part of the music that all the other parts fit around. Melody is the part that was written as the section we are most likely to remember.
Also, it often carries a significant message in the case of a modern song. Melody, therefore, has a vital place in music. Melody is important. In fact, is there anything more important?
Until next time, let your music play.