By Marilyn Floyd
“Music melody is the part of a song that you can sing,”- Marilyn Floyd
I tell my music composition students. Melody is the part of the song that everyone knows and remembers.
Three parameters -melody, harmony, and rhythm - make music out of a collection of sounds and beat. Melodies are the easiest recognized aspect of music, and so easy to remember that even cockatiel can do it.
Notes and pitches organized horizontally are called a melody. Melody is a series of musical notes arranged in a definite pattern of pitch and rhythm.
Melody is a Series of Notes
A musical melody is never just one note. Humming a single note isn’t a melody, and probably two or three notes are too short.
Take the melody you learned in pre-school If You’re Happy and You Know It. It’s a super easy melody to learn and sing, and it’s 49 notes long!
Arranged in a definite pattern
Because a melody has a definite pattern, it should be relatively simple to memorize and reiterate.
Random notes that are unpredictable or hard to remember usually don’t count as a melody. Melody is separate enough from the notes around it (harmony) and doesn’t blend too much with them.
The Building Blocks of Melody
A melody consists of smaller segments that repeat. Let’s look at the phrases of If Your Happy and You Know It. There are four phrases in this melody.
If the melody above were a paragraph, the phrase would be a musical sentence. A phrase is a small sub-section of the melody, consisting of a few notes, up to 10 or so.
There are 11 notes in each main phrase of If You're Happy and You Know It.
A phrase further subdivided into smaller units called a motif. A motif (also sometimes written as motive) is a small but recognizable musical unit with a thematic or structural identity, as a notable rhythm. Motif reoccurs and directly supports the theme and enhances the narrative of the melody.
A famous example of a motif being used to form a melody is Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus opening lines.
In orchestral/film music, a motif is a melody associated with a specific character or place that plays at different times throughout the film. For example, when the Jurassic Park characters see a live Brachiosaurus, you hear this:
In The Theme from Jurassic Park, the melody, rhythm, harmony, and orchestration come together, allowing the audience to share in the awe of seeing a real live dinosaur.
This melody is very singable. Here, we see a simple three-note motive: starting on Bb, it moves down a step to A, then returns up to Bb again.
The Importance of Musical Melody
The Jurassic Park theme has singable features, almost as if the melody is a vocal piece written for orchestra. The vocal style lends a particular beauty that captures and holds the listener’s attention. Composers use melodies to tell stories, to create emotion, and entice you to connect and remember. Melodies define the music you know and love because they’re the part of music you’re likely to remember.
Types of Melodies
Instrumental Melodies are produced on pitched instruments, like guitars or pianos, and respond to the vocals in a song.
The intro guitar melody in “There She Goes” by The La’s has a prominent instrumental melody.
Vocal melodies are prominent in popular music. All music evokes emotion, but vocal melodies are the most human and relatable part of songs. Listen to this cover of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, a beautiful vocal melody that has stood the test of time.
Tips for Writing a Great Musical Melodies
- Start with a story. Every strong musical melody, whether instrumental or vocal, tells a story. If a song were a play, the melody would be the lead actor, and the harmony (or chords) and rhythm would create the scene and be supporting roles. What story is your lead actor (the melody) telling?
- Choose a scale/key. Next, sing or play over your favorite chord progression in that key. Chords form the song’s harmony and serve to create the song’s scene. Loop (or play) these chords continually, whether it be four chords or another number. If you experiment with the same looped chords long enough, and you’ll soon find motifs and phrases will turn into a fleshed-out melody.
- Watch your melodic contour. In other words, pay attention to the way your melody moves up and down stepwise, balancing steps and skips. Too many leaps in a row are hard to follow, while a melody using only stepwise motion is not very interesting. A mix of steps and other intervals keep a melody fresh and exciting.
- Breathe life into your melody with catchy rhythms. Simple rhythms can come alive with an unexpected off-beat rhythm. Gershwin was a master at creating catchy rhythms that endure.
- Balance your melody with harmony. A lead actor doesn’t exist without a scene or supporting roles, and neither does your song. The most memorable melodies get their power in gracefully interacting with a strong harmony.
Writing a strong musical melody isn’t a skill one learns overnight. It takes practice, patience, and perseverance to craft a good melody. Even the best composers worked at it, failed, and worked at it again until they got it right. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and try, try and try again!
Marilyn is a freelance blogger/writer who has raised two neuro-diverse children. Her oldest son was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 11, and her daughter with an Auditory Processing Disorder at age 6.
In addition, Marilyn has taught piano to hundreds of students for over 23 years. She has owned her own successful music studio and currently teaches piano at School for the Arts, Brighton, Michigan. She is skilled at pinpointing her students’ interests and at helping them achieve their next steps in music. She studied music at Julliard and the Richards Institute (Education Through Music - ETM). ETM promotes physical, mental, and social growth through language, song, movement, and interactive play. In recent years, she holds a B.S. in Journalism with a minor in voice at the University of Kansas.