The Nuts and Bolts of Music - Part Two: Melody


Dr. William Leland
Las Cruces, NM USA


n another article of the Nuts and Bolts of Music series dealing with the basic musical elements--rhythm, harmony, dynamics, form and texture--we talked about what is probably the most instinctive or "primitive" element of all: rhythm. It is considered to be so because it is the one component of music that is felt instead of heard. But the most basic of all the elements which actually make sound--and the one which came first--is melody.


keyinfo.gif (1045 bytes)This article includes musical illustrations in MIDI sound; to hear them, click on each example separately as you come to it. The linked musical examples will open in a separate tab or window.


What is a melody?

A melody is simply a line of single notes, sung or played one at a time, and selected and strung together in a way that generates a feeling of purpose and destination. All melodies share certain fundamental characteristics. Take, for instance, a familiar melody like this: [Ex. 1] Now compare it to this one: [Ex. 2] Considering only the actual sounds, independent of the rhythm, what is one of the major differences between them? Or, specifically, why is The Star-Spangled Banner notoriously so difficult to sing, while America is much easier? The answer is one of the basic characteristics of any melody: range.


Range means the distance in pitch between the highest and lowest notes, or, in other words, how wide a portion of the scale it covers. Now, America spans a range of only seven scale tones--five, if you omit just two low notes near the beginning ("'tis" and "I") and one high one ("let") near the end--while The Star-Spangled Banner covers twelve. That's roughly twice as much: after dipping down low at the beginning for "O say", and then three more times on "last gleaming", "broad stripes" and "gallantly streaming" [Ex. 2], you have to strain way up, twelve notes higher, for "rockets red glare" and "land of the free" [Ex. 3].

The next example is a scale played up and down between the lowest and highest notes of The Star-Spangled Banner, to give you an idea of the range it covers [Ex. 4]--and while we're at it, here's what that range would look like on the page:

Compare this aurally and visually with the range of America [Ex. 5]:

Our National Anthem is both a great tune and an inspiring poem, no doubt about it, but it's not very comfortable for the average patriot to sing. In fact, it is this problem of a wide range that has been behind the occasional efforts to get Congress to designate some other song--usually America the Beautiful or God Bless America--as our national anthem.


Another feature all melodies have in common is contour.. This refers to the shape of the line that the notes trace out as the melody progresses: if most of the notes move to adjacent or nearby tones, the melody tends to be smooth; if they skip around a lot between more distant pitches, they form a much more angular contour.

Now, America is an example of a very smooth melody. With the exception of only four places, three of which skip only one pitch, every note in the song moves to a note in the scale that's right next door; here's how they line up on the musical staff:

That's the first half of America; you can see what a gentle curve the line describes, with only one small jump between the third and fourth notes--a very smooth contour. Now compare that to the opening of The Star-Spangled Banner:

You don't have to be able to read music to see the difference in the shape of the two lines.

Other Characteristics:

Another characteristic of any melody is length, which needs no explanation; other melodic features are usually the result of being combined with additional elements such as rhythm and harmony. But there was a time when melody stood alone, unsupported by chords or by a regular beat. Here is an example: [Ex. 6] This is Gregorian Chant, also called plainsong or plainchant, which developed in the early Christian Church well before 1000 A.D. In its original form it is sung unaccompanied by chords or other melodies, or by instruments; and its rhythm, though somewhat formalized, is derived from the flow of ordinary speech. Here is a second example of plainsong: [Ex. 7]


In listening to the last two examples you may have noticed that, even without chords to support it, a melody seems to want to end on one particular note of the scale, as though that note were the melody's "home base". Nearly all music in our Western culture exhibits this tendency to gravitate back towards one central tone or chord--a place of arrival--before it sounds finished. Such places in music are called cadences.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate a cadence is to demonstrate what a familiar song would sound like without it--so here it is: [Ex. 8] Even if you didn't know the tune you would certainly feel that the song broke off before it arrived where it should--it didn't get to its cadence, so it sounds unfinished.

Stay Tuned!

There are different kinds of cadences, and they often occur during the course of a musical composition as well as at its end. Most of the cadences with which we are quite familiar are primarily a function of harmony, which will be the subject of our third "Nuts and Bolts" article. Stay with us!

Page created: 4/21/07
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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