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Melody is the succession of tones forming a distinctive or coherent line. It is often the principle element of a musical composition and is accompanied by rhythm, form, and harmony. <ref>'Melody', Princeton Wordnet 3.0 (Accessed 7/4/10), <></ref> <ref>Burkholder, Palisca, and Grout (2005). A History of Western Music. ISBN 9780393979916</ref> A melody is not to be confused with a motif, which is a shorter succession of tones that is often manipulated to a greater extent. The word itself comes directly from Greek, meaning "singing" or "chanting" and the terms tune and line are used interchangeably. <ref>"Melody." Webster's New Colligiate Dictionary. G.&C. Merriam Co. (1981) ISBN 0-87779-408-1</ref>


Melodies are are originally and foremost a product of the Common practice period in music. In tonal period music melodies are harmonically conceived, composed simultaneously with the intended harmony in mind. Therefore in order to understand the two inseparable aspects of tonal melody it is necessary to have a firm grasp on the principles of functional harmony.<ref>Turek, Ralph. The Elements of Music. McGraw-Hill, Inc. (1996) ISBN 978-0-07-065474-7</ref>

The first aspect to identify in a melodic line is its contour. A contour may consist rising tension paired with a resolution. Tension is most often produced by means of rising pitch, but other aspects may be utilised, including but not limited to timbre, interval content, harmonic implication, rhythm, repetition, intensity, and orchestration. Tension can also be produced by means of a low point resolved instead by a high point.

Structures of a melody

Melodies consist of two or more phrases where may or may not be described as periods and are in turn built using motifs.


A motif (also spelled motive) ordinarily consists of three to eight tones and serves a unifying function when it appears often in a given melody. Possibly the most famous motif is the four-note pattern that opens Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Other examples of how motifs can form a phrase are below:

Chopin: Prelude, Op.28, No.20 - 'Largo' <music> \key c \minor g'4 aes g8. f16 es4 es f es8. des16 c4 d! e g8. f16 es4 d g b8. a16 g4 \bar "||" </music> Bar one establishes the motif for the piece. Bar two repeats this motif and descends, creating tension.
Bar three is a slightly adjusted form of the motif, which has begun to rise and resolves on a half cadence in bar four.

Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, K.525 <music> \key g \major g4 r8 d g4 r8 d g d g b d4 r c r8 a c4 r8 a c a fis a d,4 r \bar "||" </music> Note the similar motifs between bars 1 and 3, and between 2 and 4.
Also note the use of triadic outlining of the tonic and dominant.


A phrase is a larger unit that represents a more complete thought and typically ends on a cadence. The examples above show complete musical phrases comprised of two two-bar phrase members. Both examples end on a half cadence. A new phrase may begin immediately at the conclusion of the first such that the cadence of the first phrase coincides with the beginning of the second phrase . This is called cadential elision.

One phrase may be related to the next in a variety of manners:

  • Exact repetition - both phrases are identical
  • Varied repetition - the second phrase only has minor modifications (embellishment, rhythm alteration, different cadence)
  • Similar - the second phrase is not a repetition of the first, but has a similar contour or character
  • Contrasting - the second phrase vastly differs from the first.


A still larger unit of melody is the period, which serves to describe a group of two or more phrases together. Periods describe melodic phrases that are dependent on one another by an antecedent-consequent relationship. A first phrase may be likened to a clause in the English language (antecedent) whereas the second phrase provides the concluding clause or thought (the consequent). The presence of the antecedent phrase is what reinforces the conclusion of the final cadence in a period.

Periods are described in a number of ways:

  • Parallel - both phrases begin similarly or identically, but the final phrase ends more conclusively than the first
  • Contrasting - both phrases are clearly different
  • Symmetric - both phrases are of the same length
  • Asymetric - both phrases are of different lengths
  • Three-phrase period - consists of two inconclusive phrases followed by a conclusive phrase
  • Double - a four-phrase unit where the final two phrases are consequent to the first two phrases and the final cadence is more conclusive than any other.
  • Modulating - where the consequent phrase ends conclusively in a new key.

Remember that a period can only be formed when the final phrase (consequent) ends more conclusively than all other phrases in the group. If two or more successive phrases end with the same degree of conclusiveness, no period is formed between them because there is no antecedent-consequent relationship. In such case the phrases are described as

  • repeating, similar or contrasting as above,
  • the beginning of a double period (a consequent would be expected to appear soon after),
  • the generic term, phrase group.

Tonal centers in a melody

A tonal center is defined within a melody when a pitch or implied harmony is made to sound as a point of greater stability and importance. Methods for defining the tonal center include tonic-dominant emphasis, triadic outlining, and resolution of tendency tones, or pitches with strong inclinations to move in a specific directions.

Tonic-dominant emphasis

In a melody the first and fifth degrees of the scale may be established by:

  1. the number of times they appear
  2. their duration and placement within the meter/bars
  3. melodic leaps occurring between them
  4. where they appear in the range of the melody
  5. how they are used as beginning and ending pitches.

As the tonic and dominant appear more often and appear specifically as downbeats, the tonic is emphasised more strongly.

Triadic outlining

The primary triads (tonic, dominant, and subdominant) may be used within a melody to add harmonic dimension and define its tonality.

Mozart: String Quartet, K.80 (Trio) <music> \time 3/4 g'4 c e g2 (d8) r e,4 a c e2 (b8) r c,4 f a g8 (c8) c4. e8 a,4 f'8 (d) c (b) \appoggiatura b16 (c2) r4 \bar "||" </music> Appearing successively in each bar are triadic outlines of I, V, vi, iii, IV, I, ii and vii°, and I.

Tendency tones

Tendency tones are the pitches in a tonality that are least stable with the greatest tendency to resolve&emdash;that is, to move to a more stable tone, usually by half step. Tendency tones may be pitches from the dominant or subdominant triad and their resolution may be part of the tonic.

  • The least stable tone in any major or minor tonality will be the leading tone.
  • In major, the fourth degree (functioning as the flat-7th of the dominant triad) is the next least stable, as it yearns to resolve to the third degree.
  • In natural minor, the sixth degree tends to resolve downwards to the dominant pitch.
  • The seventh may pass through the sixth to also resolve on the dominant.
  • In minor, the raised seventh degree tends to resolve upwards to the tonic pitch.
  • The raised sixth may pass through the raised seventh to also resolve on the tonic.
  • Chromatic tendency tones may be produced by raising or lowering another pitch and further resolving it in the same direction.

<music> c8^\markup{Ex.1} e g gis (a) f d b' (c4) bes (a) r \bar "||" \key c \minor g2^\markup{Ex.2} a4 b c2 bes!4 aes! g2 r \bar "||" </music> Ex. 1: The first slur indicates the resolution of a rising chromatic tendency tone. The second
slur shows the diatonic leading tone. The third slur shows a descending chromatic tendency tone.
Ex.2 shows the 6th and 7th degrees as raised and lowered tendency tones respectively.

Notable examples

  • Fourth movement (Presto/Recitative, "Ode to Joy") of Beethoven's ninth symphony.
  • "Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman", more popular as the English nursery rhyme "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"
  • "Happy Birthday"
  • Brahms' Waltz in Ab, "Lullaby"
  • "Morning Mood", "Anitra's Dance" from Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite


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