To understand what melody is in music, think about some music you’re familiar with. If you were asked to hum it, what would that sound like? The part of the music that you’d hum is the melody. It’s the main thread of sound that your brain tracks and holds onto when you’re listening to music.
In vocal music, the melody is sung by the lead singer. Other vocalists can provide harmony and instruments can add accompaniment, but the melody is the star of the show.
What are the characteristics of melody? How do you describe a melody?
A melody needs to have two things. The first is a sequence of notes, or pitches, which range from high to low. The second is rhythm, which is the timing and duration of each note.
These two simple elements can create an incredible variety of combinations. Even though a melody only consists of one note at a time, it can convey so much energy and emotion. Melodies can be fast and sparkly, like “The Flight of the Bumblebee.” They can be slow and majestic, like “Finlandia.” They might be sweeping and graceful, like a Strauss waltz. Or they can be fun and exciting, like your favorite pop tunes that you love to sing along with.
Melodies often tell you a lot about where a piece of music comes from. It’s easy to recognize and identify melodies from different folk traditions such as the Japanese folk song “Sakura” or the Irish tune “Star of the County Down.”
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What is melody in music? Here are some Examples.
Here is the famous melody for the song “Lean on Me” written out on a staff. Notice the way that the notes move up, down, and then repeat.
A melody all by itself is great, but music can be even more fun when there’s an accompaniment. Here are a few bars of “Lean on Me” with the accompaniment written out. As you listen to this song, notice how the accompaniment has a very similar rhythm and movement to the melody. Then there’s that one note in the bass line that comes along every measure with its own rhythm, which adds some extra energy and movement to the song.
What makes a good melody?
When you create a melody, there are three types of movement you can use:
- Repeat (same note)
- Step (up or down)
- Skip (up or down)
Stepping and repeating are the most common types of melodic motion, and this makes a melody easier to sing. Most “hummable” tunes use steps and repeats almost exclusively. This kind of melody is called conjunct. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” one of the most famous melodies of all time, is a good example:
Skips and leaps are generally more sparing in melodies, but when thoughtfully placed they can have a powerful emotional impact. Tunes with a lot of leaps are called disjunct. Listen to Sarah Brightman sing All I Ask of You from The Phantom of the Opera starting at 0:39. This is a very disjunct melody, and challenging to sing:
Great melodies also incorporate patterns that blend unity, repetition, and contrast. Our ears love patterns, but they also love novelty and growth. A good melody incorporates all of these elements. For example, listen to John William’s “Princess Leia Theme.” Can you hear the repeated pattern in the melody that gradually moves higher as the theme progresses? Now listen to the way the melody changes and develops into something that fits with what came before but sounds new at the same time. This is some great melodic writing!
Can melody exist without rhythm?
There is no way for a melody to exist without rhythm. Even if your melody only has one note, that note has a duration, and that’s the rhythm. If your melody has two notes, how long those notes last and how much time passes between hearing them is also a rhythm.
A melody can often be recognized even when it’s performed with different rhythms. This frequently happens in live performances of pop, rock, and jazz, in which singers typically improvise slight rhythmic differences with each performance. No two renditions are exactly the same, and this constant reinterpretation keeps the music fresh.
How to make a melody for a song on piano
Creating your own melody on the piano is easy and fun! There are so many ways you can discover a melody all your own. Here are a few ideas.
- Get some inspiration from the world around you. What can you hear right now? A clock ticking? A bird song? A car passing by your house? See if you can find some notes on the piano that imitate the sounds you hear.
- Think of a feeling you’d like to put into a melody. What are some ways you could make a string of notes sound happy, sad, angry, or maybe just thoughtful.
- Choose a line from a poem you like, or write your own. Read it out loud and put some feeling into it. Did your voice rise and fall in pitch as you were reading? Now go to the piano, start on any note you like, and try to imitate what happened when you read. Go up when your voice naturally went up, go down when your voice naturally went down. How did that sound? Now you have the perfect melody to go with those words.
- Too many keys on the piano? The truth is, most melodies use only a limited number of different notes. Try creating a melody using only the black keys. These form what’s called a pentatonic scale. It’s used in a lot of folk music traditions around the world and can be a great place to start if you want to create your own melodies.
Remember, when you create your melody, keep it simple. Use repeated notes and steps, but add a few skips to keep things interesting. One tip about leaps: when you do put in a big leap, try doubling back and filling in the empty space you leaped over. This keeps the melody self-contained and easier to sing:
Also, see if you can use the same patterns of notes and rhythms to give the melody unity, but also change those patterns to give it variety. There is no right or wrong way to create your own music. Keep trying combinations of notes and rhythms until you find something that you like.
How many bars are in a melody? How many notes are in a melody?
Many types of music tend to have a prescribed number of bars, or measures. This will vary widely between different genres, and creates an overall sense of musical structure. If you’re writing a pop song, a verse will usually have between eight and sixteen bars. The prechorus that follows often has just four bars, and this “foreshortening” creates a sense of acceleration, driving the listener toward the chorus.
The number of notes in a melody can also vary widely. A melody needs at least two notes, and a long and complex melody can have hundreds or even thousands of notes.
What is a countermelody in music? How many melodies should a song have?
A counter melody is a melodic line that interacts with the primary melody as an independent but supportive voice. A great example of this is the song “We Don’t Talk about Bruno.” Each character sings their own melody during the piece, but these melodies all combine at the end as countermelodies. This produces a musical texture known as counterpoint. The same thing happens in “One Day More” from Les Miserables. The different melodies are first sung separately, but end up being combined in a splendid, complex texture that leads the music to its thrilling conclusion.
The difference between a countermelody and regular harmony is that harmony usually supports the rhythms of the melody. A countermelody will move more independently, with different rhythms from those of the melody, and will often sound “melodic” when sung or played all by itself.
A melodic song should have one main melody. This is the part that the lead voice sings. It’s usually in the spotlight, and will be the most memorable part of the music. Anything else is either harmony, countermelody, or accompaniment.
Does all music have to have a melody?
A piece of music doesn’t have to have a melody. There are many different kinds of music without melody. For example, a lot of music played on percussion instruments won’t have a melody. Listen to this example of Tahitian drumming. This is some great music, exciting and fun to listen to, but you’d have a hard time humming it. It’s music, but it doesn’t have a melody.
Rap music is another style of music where there doesn’t have to be a melody. In rap, words are chanted rather than sung. The performer will raise and lower the pitch of their voice for emphasis, but it’s the rhythm of the words that creates most of the music.
Music can even lack any melody, at least in some sections. Listen to the opening chords of “Duel of the Fates.” This choral passage is all about harmony, with little rhythmic variance or sense of melody. But it makes an effective contrast with the next section, which is bustling with rapid instrumental melodies.
In some pieces, there are multiple melodic lines but there is no one main melody. When music is made up of equally important countermelodies, it creates a contrapuntal texture. Baroque composer J.S. Bach was one of the greatest masters of this style, such as in his Little Fugue in G minor. It starts with a single melodic line, the subject, but then a countermelody is added, and then more and more until several melodic lines are playing together. It’s fun to listen to, but once all the countermelodies are playing together it becomes hard to decide which part to hum along with!
You’ll also hear a lot of counterpoint in jazz music, in which the different instruments are all playing together and improvising their own melodies that combine to create a rich, thick musical texture.
Enjoy a world of magnificent melodies!
Whether you’re humming your favorite tune, or creating a new song all your own, melody is a memorable, shareable part of music. Enrich your music experience by being aware of, listening for, and enjoying the melodies all around you.