What is Melody?

Melody, along with harmony and rhythm, is one of the three main parameters that takes a bunch of random notes and turns them into something musically pleasing. 

If someone came up to you and told you to start singing a song, the first thing you would think of is the melody. 

So what is a melody? And how do melodies work? Let’s take a look at the definition of melody, and then examine some melody examples to understand how it works in music.

Melody Definition

Technically speaking, a melody is a sequence of notes, played in a recognizable and memorable order.

In more basic terms, a melody is the notes that make up the main tune of a song. 

A song can be made up of multiple different melodies. For example, a rock band might have several melodies going at the same time. The vocalist sings one melody, the guitarist plays a second, and the drummer plays a third.

blues band guitar performance concert (image from Wikimedia Commons)

A melody is a self-contained, separate unit in the song. We know when it starts and when it ends. We also recognize it when it is repeated.

Let’s take a closer look at the definition of melody.

Melody is a Series of Notes…

Melodies can’t be just one note. 

For example, the melody of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is nineteen notes long. The melody of “Happy Birthday” is 25 notes long!

However, a melody can have very few pitches and still be a melody. Even though “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” has nineteen notes, it only uses six pitches.

Played in a Memorable Order…

Melodies like the Happy Birthday song, or “I’m a Little Teapot,” are so well known because they are always played in the same order. You could recognize these tunes anywhere!

I'm a Little Teapot sheet music (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Notes that are played in a random order are usually not melodies. A melody has to be played in a certain order that is easy to remember and replicate.

Recognized as a Separate Unit

Melodies in music have to be their own separate unit. 

If it blends in too much with the harmony, or if you can’t tell when the melody ends, it’s probably not a melody. 

So to summarize, melodies are a series of notes, played in a certain order, that are recognized as a separate unit.

How is Melody Used?

Melody is used by every single instrument, in almost every song. 

Solo vocalists sing the melody during the chorus of a song.

Orchestras may have a handful of instruments play a melody line, or the whole orchestra might play the melody together.

Even percussion instruments play their own melodies. Their melodies usually focus more on tempo than pitch, but it still counts as a melody. 

Almost every genre of music uses melody. So let’s take a look at some examples and see how the melody interacts with the rest of the music.

melody examples sheet music on staff (image found on Wikimedia Commons)

Melodies in Music

Most of the music you’ve heard on the radio, like pop, rock, jazz, or even classical music, have distinct melodies that repeat several times throughout the song. 

Sometimes, you might have one person singing one melody. 

Other times, you could have several instruments playing multiple different melodies at the same time. This is called polyphony.

Bach Melodies

Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the most influential musicians in the Baroque period. His music helped define the meaning of melody, and his melodies are some of the most recognizable in classical music.

Johann Sebastian Bach, composer (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Several factors set Bach’s melodies apart. 

For example, his melodies usually involve a lot of step-wise motion. This means that the notes move up or down, one whole step at a time. 

Also, his melodies used a lot of focal points (high or low points that the rest of the music focuses around). This made the sheet music follow an arched or a V pattern, since his melodies kept returning to the same focal points. 

One of Bach’s most recognized melodies is the main theme in “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

Pop Melodies

Newer music is full of melodies that are easy to remember and repeat. This is a very important part of pop music, since a lot of pop is created to be catchy and fun to sing.

Pop songs use chord progressions, upbeat tempos, and strong musical themes (independance, love, heartbreak) to create a catchy melody.

For some good examples of melodies in pop music, check out “Yesterday” by the Beatles, and “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5.

Melody Building Blocks

Melodies are often made of different building blocks, including phrases and motifs.

Phrases

A phrase is a subsection of a melody. 

Think of it like one line of music. In the song “Happy Birthday,” the line “Happy birthday to you” is a phrase. 

Phrases consist of less than 10 notes each. They usually end with a cadence (two or more chords), like punctuation at the end of a sentence.

You can find phrases very easily in most pop songs. For example, the chorus of Katy Perry’s song “Firework” is eight phrases long.

See if you can spot the phrases in some of your favorite songs!

Motifs

A motif is even tinier than a phrase. 

Think of a motif as a commercial jingle. It’s a super short series of notes that could be recognized everywhere.

motif examples sheet music (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Even though it’s a bit harder to define what a motif is, you’ve probably heard these famous motifs before. 

Remember Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? The one that goes “bababa bum, bababa bum…” That’s a motif. 

It’s not long enough to be a phrase, but the melody builds off of it and turns it into a more complex piece of music.

Or what about the Imperial March from Star Wars? That’s a motif.

Melodies are often built out of phrases and motifs, although it’s easier to recognize a phrase. When you listen to your favorite music, see if you can identify the phrases and motifs in the melody. Notice how they work together to add depth and texture to the music.

Summary

As a musician, it’s very important to understand the parts of melody and what they mean.

Melody is often considered the most important aspect of music. Harmony and rhythm exist to support the melody. 

As guitarist Carlos Santana once said, “Lead… chords… I’m saying that both are good. But for me, melody is supreme.”

Do you have any questions about melody in music? Let us know in the comments!

Melody, along with harmony and rhythm, is one of the three main parameters that takes a bunch of random notes and turns them into something musically pleasing. 

If someone came up to you and told you to start singing a song, the first thing you would think of is the melody. 

So what is a melody? And how do melodies work? Let’s take a look at the definition of melody, and then examine some melody examples to understand how it works in music.

Melody Definition

Technically speaking, a melody is a sequence of notes, played in a recognizable and memorable order.

In more basic terms, a melody is the notes that make up the main tune of a song. 

A song can be made up of multiple different melodies. For example, a rock band might have several melodies going at the same time. The vocalist sings one melody, the guitarist plays a second, and the drummer plays a third.

blues band guitar performance concert (image from Wikimedia Commons)

A melody is a self-contained, separate unit in the song. We know when it starts and when it ends. We also recognize it when it is repeated.

Let’s take a closer look at the definition of melody.

Melody is a Series of Notes…

Melodies can’t be just one note. 

For example, the melody of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is nineteen notes long. The melody of “Happy Birthday” is 25 notes long!

However, a melody can have very few pitches and still be a melody. Even though “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” has nineteen notes, it only uses six pitches.

Played in a Memorable Order…

Melodies like the Happy Birthday song, or “I’m a Little Teapot,” are so well known because they are always played in the same order. You could recognize these tunes anywhere!

I'm a Little Teapot sheet music (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Notes that are played in a random order are usually not melodies. A melody has to be played in a certain order that is easy to remember and replicate.

Recognized as a Separate Unit

Melodies in music have to be their own separate unit. 

If it blends in too much with the harmony, or if you can’t tell when the melody ends, it’s probably not a melody. 

So to summarize, melodies are a series of notes, played in a certain order, that are recognized as a separate unit.

How is Melody Used?

Melody is used by every single instrument, in almost every song. 

Solo vocalists sing the melody during the chorus of a song.

Orchestras may have a handful of instruments play a melody line, or the whole orchestra might play the melody together.

Even percussion instruments play their own melodies. Their melodies usually focus more on tempo than pitch, but it still counts as a melody. 

Almost every genre of music uses melody. So let’s take a look at some examples and see how the melody interacts with the rest of the music.

melody examples sheet music on staff (image found on Wikimedia Commons)

Melodies in Music

Most of the music you’ve heard on the radio, like pop, rock, jazz, or even classical music, have distinct melodies that repeat several times throughout the song. 

Sometimes, you might have one person singing one melody. 

Other times, you could have several instruments playing multiple different melodies at the same time. This is called polyphony.

Bach Melodies

Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the most influential musicians in the Baroque period. His music helped define the meaning of melody, and his melodies are some of the most recognizable in classical music.

Johann Sebastian Bach, composer (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Several factors set Bach’s melodies apart. 

For example, his melodies usually involve a lot of step-wise motion. This means that the notes move up or down, one whole step at a time. 

Also, his melodies used a lot of focal points (high or low points that the rest of the music focuses around). This made the sheet music follow an arched or a V pattern, since his melodies kept returning to the same focal points. 

One of Bach’s most recognized melodies is the main theme in “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

Pop Melodies

Newer music is full of melodies that are easy to remember and repeat. This is a very important part of pop music, since a lot of pop is created to be catchy and fun to sing.

Pop songs use chord progressions, upbeat tempos, and strong musical themes (independance, love, heartbreak) to create a catchy melody.

For some good examples of melodies in pop music, check out “Yesterday” by the Beatles, and “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5.

Melody Building Blocks

Melodies are often made of different building blocks, including phrases and motifs.

Phrases

A phrase is a subsection of a melody. 

Think of it like one line of music. In the song “Happy Birthday,” the line “Happy birthday to you” is a phrase. 

Phrases consist of less than 10 notes each. They usually end with a cadence (two or more chords), like punctuation at the end of a sentence.

You can find phrases very easily in most pop songs. For example, the chorus of Katy Perry’s song “Firework” is eight phrases long.

See if you can spot the phrases in some of your favorite songs!

Motifs

A motif is even tinier than a phrase. 

Think of a motif as a commercial jingle. It’s a super short series of notes that could be recognized everywhere.

motif examples sheet music (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Even though it’s a bit harder to define what a motif is, you’ve probably heard these famous motifs before. 

Remember Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? The one that goes “bababa bum, bababa bum…” That’s a motif. 

It’s not long enough to be a phrase, but the melody builds off of it and turns it into a more complex piece of music.

Or what about the Imperial March from Star Wars? That’s a motif.

Melodies are often built out of phrases and motifs, although it’s easier to recognize a phrase. When you listen to your favorite music, see if you can identify the phrases and motifs in the melody. Notice how they work together to add depth and texture to the music.

Summary

As a musician, it’s very important to understand the parts of melody and what they mean.

Melody is often considered the most important aspect of music. Harmony and rhythm exist to support the melody. 

As guitarist Carlos Santana once said, “Lead… chords… I’m saying that both are good. But for me, melody is supreme.”

Do you have any questions about melody in music? Let us know in the comments!

Jessica Roberts
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