Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is Melody?

Written by MasterClass

Apr 13, 2019 • 3 min read

Melody is perhaps the most identifiable element of a musical composition. It can be soulful vocal passage, a roaring guitar riff, or a rapid saxophone run. Melodies can be simple or intricate. They can stand alone, or work together with other melodies in a more complex composition.

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What Is Melody?

A melody is a collection of musical tones that are grouped together as a single entity. Most compositions consist of multiple melodies working in conjunction with one another. In a rock band, the vocalist, guitarist, keyboardist, and bassist are all playing melodies on their respective instruments. Even the drummer is playing one.

The melody in a piece of music consists of two primary components:

  1. Pitch. This refers to the actual audio vibration produced by an instrument. These pitches are arranged as a series of notes with names like C4 or D#5.
  2. Duration. The definition of melody also includes the duration of time that each pitch will sound. These durations are divided into lengths such as whole notes, half notes, quarter-note triplets, and more.

How Does Sheet Music Show Melody?

Sheet music depicts both elements in a melody. It uses musical notation to indicate a pitch on a 5-line staff, and it indicates duration by showing the shape of the note. For instance, the music notation below represents the note middle C (also known as C4) played for the duration of a whole note.

Middle C Note

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Melodies can be both short and long. A brief melodic line is sometimes called a “musical phrase,” a “motif” or a “riff.” Longer passages can also be deemed melodies, whether that’s the complete vocal line of a chorus in popular music or an entire aria in an opera by Mozart or Wagner.

How Is Melody Used in Music?

Melody is used by every musical instrument. For example:

  • Solo vocalists use melody when they sing the main theme of a song.
  • Choral vocalists sing melodies as a group. Some choruses sing the same notes in unison, like in the traditions of ancient Greece. Others choruses, like those in a church choir, sing harmonized melody lines that follow a set chord progression.
  • Percussion instruments play melodies, too, but their melodies are far more centered on rhythmic durations than pitch. However, all audible drums do have pitches, and sometimes these precise pitches are notated in sheet music. Classical music is full of pitched percussion: look no further than the timpani passages of the German composer Gustav Mahler or the mallet instruments in the avant garde twentieth century music of French composer Pierre Boulez.

How Did Melody Originate in Music?

The earliest recorded artifacts of musical melody come from the eastern region of the Mediterranean Sea. A piece titled “Hurrian Hymn No. 6” was discovered printed on a clay tablet in Syria in the 1950s, although that tune is incomplete.

The longest surviving complete melody is a Greek piece called “Seikilos Epitaph” that dates back to the first century A.D. These were vocal melodies, and the “Hurrian Hymn” notation also contains instructions for accompaniment on the lyre.

Melody made incremental advances over a period of centuries that encompassed the Medieval and Renaissance eras, but musicologists agree it took a giant leap forward during the European Baroque era from roughly 1600 to 1750. Famous Baroque composers include:

  • Georg Philipp Telemann
  • Antonio Vivaldi
  • Henry Purcell
  • Alessandro Scarlatti

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Influence on Melody

By far the most important composer of the Baroque era was Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s advancement of both melody and harmony revolutionized music, and his influence can be heard in nearly all Western music that followed him. From Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi to American jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, the tradition of stepwise motion, selective leaps, and clear focal points has endured for centuries.

Bach’s melodies are characterized by:

  • Heavy use of stepwise motion (where notes only move by a whole-tone or a half-tone)
  • Occasional leaps of a third or more—often the most memorable parts of the melodies
  • Focal points—high or low notes that the music builds toward, which tends to create arc-shaped or V-shaped melodic contours in the sheet music

This excerpt from “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” showcases all of these elements in Bach’s music.

Bach Excerpt from Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring

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How Is Melody Used in Music Today?

In popular music today, melody is king. As legendary guitarist Carlos Santana once noted: “Lead… chords… I’m saying that both are good. But for me, melody is supreme.”

Pop music usually recycles three main elements:

  • tempos (120 bpm is particularly popular)
  • chord progressions (like I - V - vi - IV)
  • lyrical themes (love, heartbreak, personal liberation)

For this reason, melody must carry a heavy load to make one song distinct from another. For examples, the songs “Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem and “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5 have the same chord progression, but they sound different. The melody is carrying each song, and making it stand out.