Danlee Mitchell and
Jack Logan, Ph.D.
may be defined as a series of individual pitches one occurring after another
in order so that the composite order of pitches constitute a recognizable
entity. A melody as a "recognizable entity" implies that a well written
melody does not wander aimlessly, but seems to stand by itself as an abstract
"idea" and can be remembered. Repetition of pitch and rhythm patterns
is an important factor in any melody existing as an “entity”. Melodic
pitches are not randomly ordered, but are subject to basic principles
In most musics
melody and rhythm are intimately bound up together. In certain styles
of religious music, notably chant, melody and musical rhythm are separated.
But in most musics, when melody is mentioned, musical rhythm is assumed
to coexist with it. Such will be the case in all uses of that term in
Melody is sometimes
called melodic line, line, theme,
or subject. Melodic line and line
are often used in a general sense, while specific melodic entities are
called melody, theme , or subject,
depending upon the point of reference.
In an abstract
sense, melody is the repository of "subject matter" or "idea" in many
world music traditions. Melody is very important as "idea" in Western
music. The Western view of melody is that it "means something" -- it is
what the music "is about". The melodic material of a given piece of music
is what the overall piece is based upon and it is this basic "idea" to
which all other elements in a composition relate.
has a strong melodic component takes on a linear character, as if the
melodic line were tactile in space and time. Well written melodies greatly
contribute to the effect of goal-oriented motion in music, and they "move"
in real time with direction and purpose. Western melody is highly goal-oriented
and is therefore a condensed mirror of Western language, behavioral traits,
and philosophy – all of which are goal-oriented in their makeup.
a sense of "line" in its presentation -- it has linear profile. Melodic
pitches rise and fall and are perceived as high and low. Imagine melody
as a curvilinear line, like the profile of a mountain range – but occurring
in time instead of space. A melody conceived in this way might look like
The up and down travel of melodic pitches is called melodic
curve. Upward-moving melodic lines build tension and create the
effect of goal-oriented forward motion. The highest point in the overall
curve is called the climactic point -- one of the "points
of arrival" in goal-oriented motion. Downward-moving melodic lines dissipate
Melody has "range". Melodic range may be defined
as the distance between the lowest and highest pitches of a melody. If
there is a large number of notes between the lowest and highest pitches,
the melody is said to have a wide range. If only a few
notes separate the lowest and highest pitches, the melody is said to have
a narrow range.
Melodies with wide ranges have an animated character
and contribute to musical motion while melodies with a narrow range are
less animated. "Range" is also a factor in the mood of a melody.
Melody has scale "infrastructure". The choices of pitches
for composing a melody are determined by a pattern of pitches known as
a scale. Most music cultures have scales that vary remarkably
The distance between any two different pitches
is known as an interval. All intervals have specific
names. The interval between the fundamental and the first harmonic in
the harmonic series is called an octave.
An octave may be expressed mathematically in that the
higher pitch is vibrating exactly twice as fast as the lower pitch or
conversely the lower pitch is vibrating twice as slowly as the upper pitch
-- a 2:1 ratio to each other. In musical usage all pitches that are in
octave relationships to each other (one octave, two octaves, three octaves,
etc.) are considered to be the same "letter-name" pitch because their
vibrations are in an exact relationship of a multiple of 2 and therefore
sound the "same".
Scales are derived by dividing the octave interval
into different pitches. A scale may be defined as a pattern of different
pitches that divide the interval span of an octave. All world music cultures
derive scale pattern for their musical use and many divergent scale patterns
are found worldwide. There are different methods for deriving scales and
the method for deriving scales is called a tuning system.
Scales are "tuned" to a specific tuning system. The primary tuning system
of Western music for the past three hundred years is known as equal
Some musical cultures divide the octave into many
different notes and then select a lesser amount of notes from the total
for scale patterns. The West divides the octave into twelve equally spaced
pitches (tuned by equal temperament), and, from these twelve pitches,
a scale of twelve equally-spaced pitches form a chromatic scale.
Further, a pattern of seven pitches of different intervals are generated
that comprise the traditional Western major and minor
scales. In India the octave is divided into twenty-four pitches. From
these twenty-four pitches, Indians derive scales from five to nine notes
with the possibility of adding more notes at the discretion of individual
Scales are usually "built" by starting with a given
note and going upward (ascending) to additional scale notes; then, stopping
on the note that is an octave above the starting note. In most musical
cultures, scale notes are identified by names, such as letter
names, abstract syllables, or numbers.
In Western music all three forms are used (in the United States letter
names are used most often). Western letter names are: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C;
abstract syllables (called solfŽge) are: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.
Numbers are, of course, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Scale
pitches are often called scale degrees.
The scales of Western music have been comprised
mostly of seven-note scales since the beginning of Christianity (these
scales and other musical materials were derived from Jewish musical practices).
About five hundred years ago (during the Renaissance) two scales emerged
as the scales most favored in the West – major and minor
– creating the major-minor tonal system. From these two
scales evolved our present tuning system -- twelve-tone equal
temperament (the octave divided into twelve equal parts).
Western major and minor scales are built by starting
on any one of the twelve notes of our equal tempered octave divisions
and building ascending patterns of notes, stopping on the note an octave
above the starting note. The interval between each note of our octave
of equally spaced pitches is called a one-half or "half" step. Two half
steps comprise a "whole" step. Major and minor scales are built by an
ascending pattern of half and whole steps. A system of symbols called
sharps and flats is employed with the letter names of notes, to allow
for all possible combinations of major and minor scales within the letter
system of C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. The pattern of half and whole steps for a major
scale is: W - W - H - W - W - W - H. The minor scale has three slight
variations, but the basic minor scale is: W - H - W - W - H - W - W.
The starting note of any scale is extremely important
and assumes a central role in relation to other scale tones. As a personal
example sing (in your "mind's eye" or "inner ear") My Country 'tis of
thee three or four times. Be very cognizant of the specific pitches being
sung. Notice that this melody is shaped into two phrases which parallel
the two lines of text. Notice (1) the pitch at the beginning of the song,
(2) the pitch at the end of the first phrase (on the word "sing") and
(3) the pitch at the end of the second phrase (the end of the song). Are
all of these pitches the same pitch?
Notice the strong "gravitational" attraction to
this pitch (it has a strong attraction for the other melodic pitches).
The other melodic pitches seem "attracted" to this pitch much like a musical
solar system. Sense the role of this pitch as a melodic point of departure
and also a point of melodic return. Sing the scale of this melody. This
pitch seems to have a central influence over all of the other pitches
that surround it in the melody. This phenomenon in music is called tonality.
The word Key is often used to refer to specific tonalities;
for example, the key of "C" major refers to the tonality of "C" major
and the key of G minor refers to the tonality of G minor. The central
tone of a tonality is known by various names including tonal center,
tonic, keynote all of which are used
interchangeably. In a melodic solar system the component "planets" not
only have a primary attraction to the center but they
also have secondary attractions to each other.
Melodies are constructed from the raw material
of scales and enjoy a musical attribute refered to here as scale
infrastructure. This scale infrastructure may
be described in the following way. Melodies that employ major and minor
scales have the tonal attributes of the major-minor system. These attributes
include a pitch that assumes the attraction of a tonal center, attended
by satellite pitches which are controlled by and attracted to the tonal
center pitch. All melodies written in the major-minor scale system have
this dynamic gravitational "aura" about them, and, as a result, such melodies
exhibit a strong sense of goal-oriented movement in real time. This is
accomplished by the tonal center being the point of departure and return
in the melodic line. The tonal center also defines the separation points
between large sections in a musical composition. Tonality imparts states
of tension and relaxation in music. The effect of tonality is not only
central to melody but also central to another element of music - harmony.
Other than all scale pitches having primary
gravitational attraction to a tonal center, certain scale pitches
have a secondary gravitational attraction to each other.
This hierarchy of primary gravitational attractions and
secondary gravitational attractions found within a major
scale (and melodies written in a major scale) may look like the following
Gravitational Attraction Among Notes of a Major Scale
Gravitational Attraction Among Notes of a Major Scale
that progress from note to note in adjacent movement move in stepwise
motion or conjunct motion. Melodies that
progress from note to note by leaps larger that a whole step move
in leaps or disjunct motion. Melodies
that are primarily conjunct have a "smooth" and "flowing" quality
while melodies that are primarily disjunct have a "rough" and "angular"
character. A melody with mostly conjunct motion is said to be "lyrical".
A melody with more conjunct than disjunct motion is relatively easier
to play or sing.
may use more than the seven tones of a major or minor scale to compose
a melody in the Western twelve-tone chromatic tuning. Other than the
seven tones of the major or minor scale, there are five (5) other
tones available in both major and minor. The use of these other tones
in a passage of music that is either major or minor in orientation
is known as chromaticism. The individual extra notes
are called chromatics (or chromatic tones)
and a melody is known as a chromatic melody if it uses a large number
or chromatic tones.
the body of a composition the tonal center note may change and other
notes may assume the role of tonal center and be the basis for scales
of a particular passage of music. A change of tonal center in a passage
of music is called a modulation.
major - minor tonal system, which began to unfold during the Renaissance
(1450-1600), culminated in a high point of development during the
late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the mid-19th century Western
composers began to explore new tonal systems. Church scales from the
medieval period were revived; scales from Arab, Persian, Oriental
and Indonesian musical cultures were imported; scales from eastern
European folk musics were embraced. This quest for new scales continues
in the latter part of the 20th century. In the early 20th century,
just before World War I, certain composers developed compositional
methods that evolved beyond the major - minor tonal system. These
methods were known as atonality before World War
One, and dodecaphonic or twelve-tone
music after World War One. During the mid-20th century Western composers
developed an interest in alternative tuning systems - systems other
that twelve-tone equal temperament. This compositional activity in
the 20th century led to new scale formations, which allowed for the
creation of new melodic and harmonic "languages".
contributes to the effect of motion in music. Since melodies are derived
from scale pitches, melodies automatically assume the gravitational
properties that scales display. The gravitational attraction of melodic
notes imparts goal-oriented motion to the effect of any melody.
the gravitational effect of scale is coupled with rhythmic patterns
in a melody, the effect of or sense of motion can be quite strong
with the building of and subsequent relaxation of tension.
displays hierarchical structural design. The overall structure of
music and the overall structure of language in Western culture are
closely related. The overall syntax of language and the structural
layering of musical events in a piece of music are strikingly similar.
Both language and music mirror certain socio-psycho forces of our
culture, most notably our goal-oriented mode of behavior.
think, speak and write in phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sections
and chapters. Musical structure is arranged similarly to this language
model, and melodic structure mirrors this syntactical model of language
is much repetition in "popular" melodies. The short units of these
melodies are motives, and motives
combine to make larger units of related material known as phrases.
The length of phrases may extend from eight to sixteen
measures and phrases combine to form complete melodies. Ludwig van
Beethoven (1770-1827) composed his Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op.
67 which contains examples of motives and phrases.
Indeed, the motive that begins the first movement
of Beethoven's 5th symphony is perhaps the most famous motive
in the history of Western music. Its fame is so much a part of the
Western culture that it has acquired a name -- "fate knocking at the
music complete melodies are usually at least thirty-two measures in
length and are made up of a series of dependent phrases
which may "break down" into motives. The successive phrases of a melody
are said to be dependent because they share motivic
material and rely on each other to make cohesive "sense"
as a complete melody.
this description it may be seen that melody is formed from an hierarchical
layering of small pitch units that recombine to form larger units
of the whole melody. Repetition plays an important
role in the building of melodies and, indeed, in the building of all
is the primary repository of abstract "idea" in music. Language is
the medium by which both spoken and written concrete and abstract
aspects of reality are communicated. Music is the medium by which
pitches are arranged according to parameters of duration, amplitude
and timbre. Music not associated with text (instrumental music not
associated with literature) is known as pure music.
Pure music communicates non-literal and abstract sounds. Pure music
is an abstract, non-literal “language” of sounds arranged
in time. Music alone (without text) is not able to communicate emotional
states but it may subjectively “suggest” these states
in a very general manner. When text is combined with music, or when
music accompanies visual action in cinema or opera, pure music is
able to participate vicariously in a literal dimension. However, pure
music’s essential realm of communication is one of abstract
relationships of sounds to each other with no attachments to literary
matter of pure music is melody. Melody is
the idea of music. Even though this is true for most
world musics, melody is very important as “idea” in Western
music. Western composers have conceived music from the impetus of
melodic “ideas” which have served as the beginning part
of the process for building longer compositions of music. The melodic
“ideas” of a composition interrelate all of the composite
material. Listeners follow melodic material in their "mind's eye"
and respond to melody intellectually, emotionally and, often, spiritually.
In Western music melody is supported by all of the other basic elements
of music – meter, rhythm, harmony, dynamics and timbre. It is
possible to find world musics in which pure rhythm, harmony, or timbre
serve as the primary “idea” of music, and this is true
for some Western music written during the latter part of the 20th
mirrors text inflection and heightens text meaning. With the evolution
of ancient spoken languages there came a realization that (1) spoken
language was inflected and (2) spoken language could be heightened
(enhanced or intensified) by presenting it in a stylized (a special
or non-regular) mode of delivery - singing.
are spoken in a framework of pitch contour (the up and down melodic
curve of pitches). Words and word groups are spoken on short but precise
pitches that rise and fall. This subtle aspect of spoken language
is known as inflection whereby the speaker controls highs and lows
of the short pitches within words by use the vocal cords. Languages
that have acute inflective characteristics are called tonal languages.
In a tonal language the inflected pitches and pitch contours are as
important to cognitive meaning as the written words themselves. The
languages of China, Thailand and Viet Nam are tonal.
the inflections of spoken words are greatly extended in length the
result is singing. Singing was a very natural activity
for ancient humankind. Singing is a stylized mode of word utterance,
as opposed to speech, which is a normal mode of word delivery. Any
stylized mode of presentation heightens (enhances or intensifies)
the effect of the communicative medium whether the medium is words
(song) or movement (dance). Words are enhanced and special meaning
is bestoyed upon words when they are sung. The meaning of words is
intensified and their impact upon the listener is "heightened".
of song are very sensitive to the inflective contour of text. Such
contour often dictates the curve of melodies that are written in conjunction
with text. The inflectional contour of text may be directly translated
into a melodic line. It is a very simple step from speaking to singing
if one is sensitive to text inflections. When both text and accompanying
melody have inflective interaction the effect of this interaction
may enhance or heighten the text considerably. Singing and the melodic
material which is sung combine to enhance the impact of the meaning
of the words to listeners.
also discovered that sung text has an hypnotic effect on the listener.
Sung text is found in all world religions. The original singing style
for religious purposes was called chant and chant
continues to be a musical genre in religious expression in modern
times. The singing of religious text imparts an atmosphere of mystery
to any religious environment. To the participant in a religious service
religious text which is sung gives that text a heightened "otherworldly"
character. The text, its meaning and the experience of the participants
in the service are carried to a "place" beyond ordinary reality. The
effect of such music is to mask the sense of reality in the environment.
In this context the music serves as a vehicle for heightened spiritual