Music Theory

Melody Vs. Harmony: Similarites and Differences

By Rebecca Carlson
Melody vs Harmony

Explore the distinctions and connections between melody and harmony below

What is melody in music? A melody is a series of consecutive pitches that stands out from the rest of the sounds in a piece. It’s the part you would hum if someone asked you what the piece sounded like. Harmony, on the other hand, is what you hear simultaneously. It’s a combination of other tones that supports the melody and helps to define and enrich it. Melody and harmony working together can create some truly amazing music!

music melody and harmony

Can melody exist without harmony?

It depends on how you want to think about harmony.

Any time one person sings by themselves with no other instruments playing along, that’s called monophonic music. They’re singing a melody without harmony in the sense that there isn’t another voice or instrument producing other notes at the same time. While it’s less common for a performance to consist entirely of one person or instrument playing without any harmony or accompaniment, you’ll often hear solo sections where all other instruments and voices are silent and a single melody is heard. 

When several instruments or voices play the same notes at the same time, that’s called unison. Since everyone is playing the same melody, that’s still a monophonic texture, lacking explicit harmony. 

But there are other ways to think of harmony. In a melody, tones move up and down, and the relationship between them creates a sort of harmony even though the tones aren’t heard at the same time. The intervals between these tones can suggest chords and create different moods simply by the way the sound changes from one note to another. This can be considered an implied harmony.

Here’s another interesting way to look at harmony. Even when an instrument produces a single tone, the pitch we perceive is actually a combination of many different frequencies. With a pitched instrument–like the piano–the fundamental pitch you hear is accompanied by a whole series of much fainter, higher tones. These are called overtones, or harmonics, which you can see when the sound is analyzed in a spectrogram (like this one from Chrome Music Lab). These harmonics make the sound of a musical instrument rich, full, and unique. If you want to think of harmony as what happens any time more than one frequency is present, then harmony is always there. Every instrument creates harmonics; it’s just that the fundamental frequency is much stronger than all the others. So whenever you hear a melody, you’re hearing a little bit of harmony too!

overtones and harmonics

Can a melody be used as a harmony?

Yes, there are many melodies that can also function as harmonies. One obvious example is a type of song called a round. It has a melody that’s sung by two or more people who start at different times, making staggered entries of the melody. Rounds like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and “Kookaburra” have melodies that are designed to harmonize with themselves. To sing these songs, one person or group of people will start the song, then continue singing as another person or group starts at the beginning while the first group sings the next part, and so on.

round and canon in music

A more sophisticated version of the round is a musical form called a canon. A canon has a melody that doesn’t necessarily repeat, but two or more voices will play this same melody starting at different times. As the piece progresses, each section of the melody harmonizes with the section before it. J. S. Bach wrote many famous canons, like this one.

Another example you’ll often hear is two or more different melodies sung separately in a piece, and then sung at the same time to create harmony. The song from Disney’s Encanto, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” uses several different melodies that all come together to create an exciting harmony at the end. This weaves a “tapestry” of different melodies, called polyphonic music, or counterpoint.

Do you hum a melody or harmony?

You can think of the melody of a song as the part you would hum if someone asked you “How does that song go?”

You can also hum the harmony part to a song, but it will be less recognizable because the melody part is the most prominent part of the song and is the part most likely to be remembered. And, since we can only hum one tone at a time, the “harmony” part is really just another melody!

Melody vs. harmony: Similarities

Melody and harmony both use the same basic building blocks of music–pitch and rhythms. In almost all music, melody and harmony will follow the same chord progression together throughout a piece. In fact, chords are really just the result of all the simultaneous tones you hear at any given moment. Both melody and harmony are important in establishing the mood of a piece, whether happy, sad, exciting, or peaceful. They complement each other: harmony can determine whether a piece is in a major or minor key, and a melody can suggest which harmonies will be used.

Melody vs. harmony: Differences 

A melody is a sequence of single notes designed to be musically satisfying. They often include a balance between repeated and changing tones that makes them both memorable and interesting. The idea is for a melody to be clear, simple, and able to stand on its own. Learn how to make a great melody of your own with this article.

Harmony is the combination of multiple sounds at one time. Harmony usually accompanies a melody and provides texture, variety, and depth to the sound. Its purpose is to support and enrich the melody. Harmony can make a big difference in the way the melody is perceived. For example, the same melody played with a peaceful, lilting arpeggio will sound entirely different when played with powerful, pulsing chords. Harmonies tend to be more complex than melodies, and can consist of several notes or instruments played at once. You can find out more about harmony here.

If you’ve ever sung in a choir and practiced a voice part by itself, you may have noticed that harmony lines tend to have more repeated notes and more skips than melodies. This can be especially true for bass lines. Harmony also might not have as much balance between repetition and change as the melody does. The harmony line’s job is to support the melody, so it doesn’t have to enchant the ear and hold the listener’s attention all on its own. 

Melody and harmony: Working together

Melody is the main musical line that carries the piece. Harmony is the accompaniment that enriches and helps define the music. They both work together to create satisfying listening experiences. As you hear music, try to listen for both melody and harmony and think about how they interact to make meaning with sound.


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