2B Aspects of Melody

You have an assignment to set a poem to a modal melody. On this page, we'll look at some aspects of what makes up a good melody, with an emphasis on a vocal melody.

1. Contour

When we speak of the contour of a melody, we are speaking about it's overall shape, which could be physically drawn by simply outlining the flow of the notes. If we take a melody like "Somewhere over the Rainbow,"

we could perhaps graph the contour of the melody like this:

This rough graphic shows us the contour of the rising octave ("Somewhere"), the little step wise phrase, then the next two rising sixths, followed by the gentle largely step-wise motion to the lower C. This is an extremely well-shaped melody, with the rising octave portraying Dorothy's hope in a land over the rainbow. The melody slowly descends down to earth with each phrase, as if Dorothy realizes that it's all fantasy, and that well, "there's no place like home!"

I could graph out a lot more melodies, but the basic idea is this: melodies have high places and low places, and some gentle contours in between, and that you should be aware of these contours as you create a melodic shape.

2. Stepwise movements and leaps

Coupled to the idea of melodic contour or shape is the awareness that a good melody has a balance between stepwise movement and leaping movement. Again, "Over the Rainbow" is a good example of this effect. Another example might be Paul McCartney's Yesterday:

This song is largely stepwise, but because of this, the leaps stand out as having an expressive importance. Notice that, just like "Over the Rainbow," this song has one high point on the high C, and one lowpoint on the low A. High points and low points are important considerations when contructing a good melody.

3. Motifs and Repetition

Motifs are short rhythmic and melodic units that a repeated a different pitch levels to create both continuity and interest. "Oh, there's that motif again: where will it appear next time." Classical composition is full of examples of the use of motif. A central example is the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony:

Indeed, the entire symphony, all four movements, could in one way or another be said to derive from this opening motif! (More on that later in the course).

It is always good to use repetition and motivic development when writing a melody. Too often, beginners in composition feel that they have to be continually fresh and creative. No! Repetition is essential for both elegant shape and for good communication to your listener.

4. Well-defined Phrases

The last aspect of good melody writing I'll mention (there could be many more) regards phrases. A phrase is a short musical thought, usually sung or performed on one breath. If you look at the examples above, you'll see that they are each clearly defined by their varied phrase lengths, but that each phrase is unique and well-defined:

Somewhere // over the rainbow // way up high // // there's a land that I've heard of // once in a lullabye

Yesterday // all my troubles seemed so far away // now it looks as though they're here to stay // oh I believe // in yesterday.

Ba-ba-ba-bum! Ba-ba-ba-bum!!!

A final example

I tend to turn to Beatles' songs for good musical examples, because they are the classical music of the pop world, and most people across the generations know this music. Paul McCartney was a supreme melodist. So I'll put down here his "Hey Jude" and you can analyze it for it's expression of the principles stated above. The piece is sung in F major, but I'll put it here in C for comparison with the other C melodies above.

A few things to notice. Like the other melodies, the song has one high point (in this case, the D) and one low point (the B leading in to the final note of the A section). The phrases are clearer delineated, but they're not boring because they are of different lengths. It has a certain logic, becuase the "Jude" on E and the "Bad" on D leads the ear to want to hear the C tonic, which doesn't really happen until the final note of the section.

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Musical Terms