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A bar from J. S. Bach's Fugue No. 17 in A-flat, BWV 862, from The Well-Tempered Clavier (Part I), an example of counterpoint. The two voices (melodies) on each staff can be distinguished by the direction of the stems and beams.
Voice 1
Voice 2
Voice 3
Voice 4 BachFugueBar.png
A bar from J. S. Bach's Fugue No. 17 in A-flat, BWV 862, from The Well-Tempered Clavier (Part I), an example of counterpoint. The two voices (melodies) on each staff can be distinguished by the direction of the stems and beams.
Voice 1
Voice 2
Voice 3
Voice 4

A melody (from Greek μελῳδία, melōidía, "singing, chanting"), [1] also tune, voice or line, is a linear succession of musical tones that the listener perceives as a single entity. In its most literal sense, a melody is a combination of pitch and rhythm, while more figuratively, the term can include successions of other musical elements such as tonal color. It may be considered the foreground to the background accompaniment. A line or part need not be a foreground melody.


Melodies often consist of one or more musical phrases or motifs, and are usually repeated throughout a composition in various forms. Melodies may also be described by their melodic motion or the pitches or the intervals between pitches (predominantly conjunct or disjunct or with further restrictions), pitch range, tension and release, continuity and coherence, cadence, and shape.

Function and elements

Johann Philipp Kirnberger argued:

The true goal of music—its proper enterprise—is melody. All the parts of harmony have as their ultimate purpose only beautiful melody. Therefore, the question of which is the more significant, melody or harmony, is futile. Beyond doubt, the means is subordinate to the end.

The Norwegian composer Marcus Paus has argued:

Melody is to music what a scent is to the senses: it jogs our memory. It gives face to form, and identity and character to the process and proceedings. It is not only a musical subject, but a manifestation of the musically subjective. It carries and radiates personality with as much clarity and poignancy as harmony and rhythm combined. As such a powerful tool of communication, melody serves not only as protagonist in its own drama, but as messenger from the author to the audience.

Marcus Paus (2017) [3]

Given the many and varied elements and styles of melody "many extant explanations [of melody] confine us to specific stylistic models, and they are too exclusive." [4] Paul Narveson claimed in 1984 that more than three-quarters of melodic topics had not been explored thoroughly. [5]

The melodies existing in most European music written before the 20th century, and popular music throughout the 20th century, featured "fixed and easily discernible frequency patterns", recurring "events, often periodic, at all structural levels" and "recurrence of durations and patterns of durations". [4]

Melodies in the 20th century "utilized a greater variety of pitch resources than ha[d] been the custom in any other historical period of Western music." While the diatonic scale was still used, the chromatic scale became "widely employed." [4] Composers also allotted a structural role to "the qualitative dimensions" that previously had been "almost exclusively reserved for pitch and rhythm". Kliewer states, "The essential elements of any melody are duration, pitch, and quality (timbre), texture, and loudness. [4] Though the same melody may be recognizable when played with a wide variety of timbres and dynamics, the latter may still be an "element of linear ordering." [4]


"Pop Goes the Weasel" melody Pop Goes the Weasel melody.PNG
"Pop Goes the Weasel" melody
Melody from Anton Webern's Variations for orchestra, Op. 30 (pp. 23-24) Webern Variations melody.png
Melody from Anton Webern's Variations for orchestra, Op. 30 (pp. 23–24)

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

See also

Related Research Articles

Counterpoint Polyphonic music with separate melodies

In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more musical lines which are harmonically interdependent yet independent in rhythm and melodic contour. As a compositional technique, counterpoint is found in many musical styles including Medieval music, gamelan, and the music of West Africa. Within the context of Western classical music, counterpoint refers to the texture of polyphony, which developed during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance and is found in much of the common practice period, especially in the Baroque. The term originates from the Latin punctus contra punctum meaning "point against point", i.e. "note against note".

Impressionism in music was a movement among various composers in Western classical music whose music focuses on mood and atmosphere, "conveying the moods and emotions aroused by the subject rather than a detailed tone‐picture". "Impressionism" is a philosophical and aesthetic term borrowed from late 19th-century French painting after Monet's Impression, Sunrise. Composers were labeled impressionists by analogy to the impressionist painters who use starkly contrasting colors, effect of light on an object, blurry foreground and background, flattening perspective, etc. to make the observer focus his attention on the overall impression.

Music Form of art using sound and silence

Music is the art of arranging sounds in time to produce a composition through the elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. It is one of the cultural universal aspects of all human societies. General definitions of music include common elements such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture. Different styles or types of music may emphasize, de-emphasize or omit some of these elements. Music is performed with a vast range of instruments and vocal techniques ranging from singing to rapping; there are solely instrumental pieces, solely vocal pieces and pieces that combine singing and instruments. The word derives from Greek μουσική . See glossary of musical terminology.

Harmony Aspect of music

In music, harmony is the process by which the composition of individual sounds, or superpositions of sounds, is analysed by hearing. Usually, this means simultaneously occurring frequencies, pitches, or chords.

Music theory Considers the practices and possibilities of music

Music theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of music. The Oxford Companion to Music describes three interrelated uses of the term "music theory". The first is the "rudiments", that are needed to understand music notation ; the second is learning scholars views on music from antiquity to the present; the third a sub-topic of musicology that "seeks to define processes and general principles in music". The musicological approach to theory differs from music analysis "in that it takes as its starting-point not the individual work or performance but the fundamental materials from which it is built."

In music, duration is an amount of time or how long or short a note, phrase, section, or composition lasts. "Duration is the length of time a pitch, or tone, is sounded." A note may last less than a second, while a symphony may last more than an hour. One of the fundamental features of rhythm, or encompassing rhythm, duration is also central to meter and musical form. Release plays an important part in determining the timbre of a musical instrument and is affected by articulation.

In music, an ostinato[ostiˈnaːto] is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch. Well-known ostinato-based pieces include both classical compositions, such as Ravel's Boléro and the Carol of the Bells, and popular songs such as Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love" (1977), Henry Mancini's theme from Peter Gunn (1959), and The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (1997).. But one of the best known use of ostinatos is in John Williams' Duel of the Fates form Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Monophony Musical texture

In music, monophony is the simplest of musical textures, consisting of a melody, typically sung by a single singer or played by a single instrument player without accompanying harmony or chords. Many folk songs and traditional songs are monophonic. A melody is also considered to be monophonic if a group of singers sings the same melody together at the unison or with the same melody notes duplicated at the octave. If an entire melody is played by two or more instruments or sung by a choir with a fixed interval, such as a perfect fifth, it is also said to be monophony. The musical texture of a song or musical piece is determined by assessing whether varying components are used, such as an accompaniment part or polyphonic melody lines.


A bassline is the term used in many styles of music, such as jazz, blues, funk, dub and electronic, traditional music, or classical music for the low-pitched instrumental part or line played by a rhythm section instrument such as the electric bass, double bass, cello, tuba or keyboard.

In music, texture is how the tempo, melody melodic, and harmony harmonic materials are combined in a musical composition, determining the overall quality of the sound in a piece. The texture is often described in regard to the density, or thickness, and range, or width, between lowest and highest pitches, in relative terms as well as more specifically distinguished according to the number of voices, or parts, and the relationship between these voices. For example, a thick texture contains many 'layers' of instruments. One of these layers could be a string section or another brass. The thickness also is changed by the amount and the richness of the instruments playing the piece. The thickness varies from light to thick. A piece's texture may be changed by the number and character of parts playing at once, the timbre of the instruments or voices playing these parts and the harmony, tempo, and rhythms used. The types categorized by number and relationship of parts are analyzed and determined through the labeling of primary textural elements: primary melody (PM), secondary melody (SM), parallel supporting melody (PSM), static support (SS), harmonic support (HS), rhythmic support (RS), and harmonic and rhythmic support (HRS).

Ear training or aural skills is a music theory study in which musicians learn to identify pitches, intervals, melody, chords, rhythms, solfeges, and other basic elements of music, solely by hearing. The application of this skill is analogous to taking dictation in written/spoken language. As a process, ear training is in essence the inverse of sight-reading, the latter being analogous to reading a written text aloud without prior opportunity to review the material. Ear training is typically a component of formal musical training and is a fundamental, essential skill required in music schools.

In the history of European art music, the common practice period is the era of the tonal system. Though it has no exact dates, most features of the common-practice period persisted from the mid- to late baroque period, through the Classical, Romantic and Impressionist periods, from around 1650 to 1900. The period saw considerable stylistic evolution, with some patterns and conventions flourishing and then declining, for example the sonata form. Thus, the dates 1650–1900 are necessarily nebulous and arbitrary borders that depend on context. The most important unifying feature throughout the period is a harmonic language to which modern music theorists can apply Roman numeral chord analysis.

Phrase (music) Musical unit

In music theory, a phrase is a unit of musical meter that has a complete musical sense of its own, built from figures, motifs, and cells, and combining to form melodies, periods and larger sections.

A phrase is a substantial musical thought, which ends with a musical punctuation called a cadence. Phrases are created in music through an interaction of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Figure (music) Shortest phrase in music, a short succession of notes

A musicalfigure or figuration is the shortest phrase in music; a short succession of notes, often recurring. It may have melodic pitch, harmonic progression, and rhythmic meter. The 1964 Grove's Dictionary defines the figure as "the exact counterpart of the German 'motiv' and the French 'motif'": it produces a "single complete and distinct impression". To the self-taught Roger Scruton, however, a figure is distinguished from a motif in that a figure is background while a motif is foreground:

A figure resembles a moulding in architecture: it is 'open at both ends', so as to be endlessly repeatable. In hearing a phrase as a figure, rather than a motif, we are at the same time placing it in the background, even if it is ... strong and melodious

Level (music)

A level, also "tonality level", Gerhard Kubik's "tonal step," "tonal block," and John Blacking's "root progression," is an important melodic and harmonic progression where melodic material shifts between a whole tone above and a whole tone below the tonal center. This shift can occur to both neighboring notes, in either direction, and from any point of departure. The steps above and below the tonic are often called contrasting steps. A new harmonic segment is created which then changes the tonality but not necessarily the key.


In music, homophony is a texture in which a primary part is supported by one or more additional strands that flesh out the harmony. One melody predominates while the other parts play either single notes or an elaborate accompaniment. This differentiation of roles contrasts with equal-voice polyphony and monophony. Historically, homophony and its differentiated roles for parts emerged in tandem with tonality, which gave distinct harmonic functions to the soprano, bass and inner voices.

Steps and skips

In music, a step, or conjunct motion, is the difference in pitch between two consecutive notes of a musical scale. In other words, it is the interval between two consecutive scale degrees. Any larger interval is called a skip, or disjunct motion.

In music, tension is the anticipation music creates in a listener's mind for relaxation or release. For example, tension may be produced through reiteration, increase in dynamic level, gradual motion to a higher or lower pitch, or (partial) syncopations between consonance and dissonance.

Diatonic and chromatic Terms in music theory to characterize scales

Diatonic and chromatic are terms in music theory that are most often used to characterize scales, and are also applied to musical instruments, intervals, chords, notes, musical styles, and kinds of harmony. They are very often used as a pair, especially when applied to contrasting features of the common practice music of the period 1600–1900.

Traditional sub-Saharan African harmony is a music theory of harmony in Sub-Saharan Africa music based on the principles of homophonic parallelism, homophonic polyphony, counter melody and ostinato-variation. Polyphony is common in African music and heterophony is a common technique as well. Although these principles of traditional African music are of Pan-African validity, the degree to which they are used in one area over another varies. Specific techniques that used to generate harmony in Africa are the "span process", "pedal notes", "Rhythmic harmony", "harmony by imitation", and "scalar clusters".


  1. μελῳδία . Liddell, Henry George ; Scott, Robert ; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  2. Forte, Allen (1979). Tonal Harmony in Concept & Practice, p. 203. ISBN   0-03-020756-8.
  3. Paus, Marcus (2017-11-06). "Why melody matters". Gramophone .
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Kliewer, Vernon (1975). "Melody: Linear Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music", Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music, pp. 270–301. Wittlich, Gary (ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN   0-13-049346-5.
  5. Narveson, Paul (1984). Theory of Melody. ISBN   0-8191-3834-7.
  6. Marquis, G. Weston (1964). Twentieth Century Music Idioms, p. 2. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Inglewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Further reading