In music, a recognizable series of notes of different pitches played or sung one after the other. It could also be described as the tune. Melody is one of the three main elements of music, along with rhythm and harmony. In Western music a melody is usually formed from the notes of a scale or mode. A melody, with or without accompaniment, may be a complete piece on its own – such as a simple song. In classical music it is more often used as a theme within a longer piece of music.
Melodic structure Melody is often seen as an element in music that is distinct from harmony and rhythm. However, in Western music the three are mostly interdependent. For example, phrases within a melody can often be analysed as a series of notes that imply chords, and thus a harmonic structure; and rhythmic ideas (or motifs) may help to shape the structure of the melody. Other factors, such as the ascending or descending phrases, or the width of intervals between notes in the melody, can greatly change its quality.
Harmonic structure The harmony that is implied by a melody, whether in the form of an accompaniment or not, helps to give the melody a distinctive character and establish its key. It arouses an expectation in the listener that certain conventions will be followed, but it is often the breaking of these conventions that makes a melody interesting. It is largely the implied harmonic or key structure that creates the mood of a melody. For example, a melody will have a very different ‘feel’ according to whether it is in a major or minor key, or there can be a greater or lesser build-up of tension depending on how far from its ‘home’ (tonic) key it has moved (modulated).
Rhythmic elements It might be thought that the pitch of the notes of a melody would be its main distinguishing feature, but this is very often not the case. Rhythmic patterns and tempo can also be an important part of the melody, to the extent that some melodies can be recognized just by their rhythm.
Aesthetics of melody What makes ‘a good tune’ has been a matter of much debate throughout the history of music, each age having its own views on the subject. As musical tastes have changed, so each generation has criticized the next for its lack of melodic beauty. Similarly, music from cultures unfamiliar to the listener is often described as ‘tuneless’. As with any branch of aesthetics, there are no hard-and-fast rules for creating a memorable or beautiful melody, but attempts are still made to analyse those elements that make for a good melodic structure.
The Elements of Music – Melody