A melody is most simply described as a series of pitches sounded in succession, but this definition does not explain how melodies are built and how they function in music. In this section we will explore the concept of melody in greater detail and discuss the relationships between melodies and accompaniments, the sounds meant to support and enhance melodies.
Contour and Range
Contour describes the linear motion of a melody up and down. Does it generally ascend or descend? Does it come back to the same pitch on which it began? Does the melody use large intervals or small ones?
When melodies move by whole or half steps, this is conjunct motion. Movement in larger intervals is called disjunct motion. Most melodies combine the two, as in this example from "Twinkle, Twinkle". In this melody the contour begins with a leap upwards (disjunct motion), then a gradual descent using smaller intervals (conjunct motion) that concludes on the original pitch.
Melodic contour is also important in the history of music notation. Before our current system of notation was developed, musicians sometimes wrote down the contour of a melody in order to remember it. Over time, composers and performers started adding horizontal lines to make sure that when the same pitch returned it would be written at the same height, which made their contour drawings more specific, more accurate, and easier to read. They started with only one line, but they soon began adding more. Sometimes the lines were even color-coded, using red for C and yellow for G, for example. Color coding fell by the wayside, but musicians kept adding lines until there were five staff lines, as in our modern notation system.
Range refers to the total range of pitches encompassed in the melody: how high and low the melody goes. If the score does not indicate which voice or instrument should be used to perform the music, the range can be used to help determine which voices and instruments are appropriate for use. For example, if the range includes pitches that are too high or too low for a voice then it must be played on an instrument.
Motives and Phrases
A motive or motif is the shortest possible melodic unit and may consist of as few as two different pitches. Motives are the musical equivalent of a catch phrase or slogan and are often used in that capacity in commercials (see Mennen and Hot Pockets commercials), but they may also play a significant role in major art music compositions as well (consider the first three notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony).
Motives may also be incorporated into a larger melodic unit: a phrase. Phrases tend to be lyrical (singable, song-like) even if they are performed by instruments, and are the musical equivalent of sentences, clauses, or lines of poetry. Phrases can be divided by commas in lyrics (for vocal music), breaths (for voices and wind instruments), rests (silences), or simply by the shape of the melody. Phrases usually occur in regular lengths, also. We will discuss this idea more once we have explored the concepts of beat and meter, and rhythm.
In musical analysis, phrases are identified by lower case letters: "a" for the first, "b" for the second, etc. If the phrase repeats, the letter is used again. Also, phrases tend to end with cadences, which are melodic and harmonic formulas that bring a sense of closure to the phrase. We will discuss cadences in more detail in the section on harmony.
Antecedent and Consequent Phrases
Two important and interrelated types of phrases are antecedent and consequent phrases. Antecedent and consequent phrases occur when one phrase seems to ask a question (the antecedent) and the other seems to answer it (the consequent). The antecedent phrase sounds unfinished or unresolved when it ends because its final pitch is not the tonic pitch. The consequent phrase then responds to the antecedent and finishes with a stronger sense of resolution, often by landing on the tonic pitch.
When melodies are written specifically for a particular instrument or voice, the composer will capitalize on the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of that instrument or voice. This is called composing idiomatically. For example, some melodies are more suited to instruments than voices: those that use large leaps (intervals) between pitches, those that are too high or too low for voices, or those with very fast passages, for example. Voices, on the other hand, are often considered more expressive than instruments, particularly because they are uniquely capable of performing lyrics. So, when composers are writing melodies, they consider these strengths and weaknesses and adjust their compositions accordingly.
A texture describes the way that melodies behave and interact with each other in a piece. There are three textures that account for the majority of Western music: monophony, polyphony, and homophony.
When a piece of music is nothing more than a melody, this texture is called monophony. There may just be one voice or instrument playing (monophony literally means "one sounding"), or there may be several, all playing the same thing. When all the performers are playing or singing the exact same pitches, they are performing in unison. When a room full of people sings "Happy Birthday", the men are usually singing the melody an octave lower than the women, so they are no longer singing in unison but at the octave. However, due to octave equivalence (see the section on pitch), the same melody sung in a different octave still sounds the same, so singing at the octave is also considered monophony.
Historically, the body of Medieval religious chant known as "Gregorian" chant is entirely monophonic. We will examine Gregorian chant in more detail in Music and Words.
Polyphony, meaning "many sounding", refers to music in which there are several independent melodies that occur simultaneously. These melodies intermingle and overlap, and are generally designed to sound good together.
Another term that is closely related to polyphony is counterpoint. Counterpoint is a style and method of writing polyphony that was used from the 15th through 17th centuries. So, a discussion of counterpoint is really a discussion of a specific type of polyphony. In many cases the two terms can be used like synonyms (example: contrapuntal texture = polyphonic texture).
There are two subtypes of polyphony: imitative and free. Imitative polyphony occurs when the melody of the first voice is copied by subsequent voices. The most strict form of this type of imitation is the canon. In a canon, the original melody is emulated precisely and without variant in every voice. Perhaps the most well-known canon is "Row, Row, Row Your Boat": (if the image is too small, click to view it larger)
A fugue is another imitative polyphonic form. Fugues are less strict than canons: the different voices begin by imitating each other, but gradually diverge and become unique. Bach's "Little" G Minor Fugue is an example of this type of imitative polyphony. The video below allows you to follow the basic contours of the different parts without needing music notation. For more on the fugue, see the section on form in popular and art music.
Free polyphony, on the other hand, can be found in traditional New Orleans jazz and in the early polyphony of the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods. In this texture, the independent voices are each unique and do not copy each other. "Hotter Than That" performed by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, is an example of New Orleans jazz that begins with a section of free polyphony followed by improvised solos (trumpet, clarinet, voice, then trombone).
When there is one melody, and the other parts are designed to simply support and accompany the melody (the accompaniment), then the texture is homophony. The majority of Western music falls into this category. For our purposes, any music that is not monophonic and not polyphonic can be considered homophonic.
There are two main types of homophony: melody-and-accompaniment, and chorale-type (homorhythmic) homophony. The majority of popular music, art song, and opera falls into the first category. To be considered chorale-type homophony, all the voices (or instruments) must be homorhythmic - all executing the same rhythm at the same time. The different parts will be singing different notes (otherwise it would be monophony), but they will say the lyrics at the same time as they all move with the same rhythm.
The beginning of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a good example of chorale-type homophony. The rest of the song is predominantly the melody-and-accompaniment type of homophony.