In music, a melody is a series of linear events or a succession, not a simultaneity as in a chord. However, this succession must contain change of some kind and be perceived as a single entity (possibly gestalt) to be called a melody. Most specifically this includes patterns of changing pitches and durations, while most generally it includes any interacting patterns of changing events or quality. "Melody may be said to result where there are interacting patterns of changing events occurring in time." (DeLone et. al. (Eds.) 1975, p.270-1)
"The events occurring in time must involve change of some kind to be understood as related or unrelated...The essential elements of any melody are duration, pitch, and quality [timbre, texture, and loudness]" Melodies often consist of one or more musical phrases, motifs, and is usually repeated throughout a song or piece in various forms. Melodies may also be described by their melodic motion or the pitches or the intervals between pitches (predominately conjuct or disjunct or with further restrictions), pitch range, tension and release, continuity and coherence, cadence, and shape (ibid, p.290-301).
"Many extant explinations [of melody] confine us [sic] to specific stylistic models, and they are too exclusive." (ibid, p.270) Different musical styles use melody in different ways. For example:
- Rock music, melodic music, and other forms of popular music and folk music tend to pick one or two melodies (verse and chorus) and stick with them; much variety may occur in the phrasing and lyrics. "Gino Stefani makes appropriation the chief criterion for his 'popular' definition of melody (Stefani 1987a). Melody, he argues, is music 'at hand'; it is that dimension which the common musical competence extracts (often with little respect for the integrity of the source), appropriates and uses for a variety of purposes: singing, whistling, dancing, and so on." (Middleton, p.96)
- In western classical music, composers often introduce an initial melody, or theme, and then create variations. Classical music often has several melodic layers, called polyphony, such as those in a fugue, a type of counterpoint. Often melodies are constructed from motifs or short melodic fragments, such as the opening of Beethoven's Ninth. Richard Wagner popularized the concept of a leitmotif: a motif or melody associated with a certain idea, person or place.
- While in both most popular music and classical music of the common practice period pitch and duration are of primary importance in melodies, the contemporary music of the 20th and 21st centuries pitch and duration have lessened in importance and quality has gained importance, often primary. Examples include musique concrete, klangfarbenmelodie, Elliott Carter's Eight Etudes and a Fantasy which contains a movement with only one note, the third movement of Ruth Crawford-Seeger's String Quartet 1931 (later reorchestrated as Andante for string orchestra) in which the melody is created from an unchanging set of pitches through "dissonant dynamics" alone, and Censored page's Aventures in which reoccurring phonetics create the linear form.
- Jazz musicians use the melody line, called the "lead" or "head", as a starting point for improvisation.
- Indian classical music relies heavily on melody and rhythm, and not so much on harmony as the above forms.
- Balinese gamelan music often uses complicated variations and alterations of a single melody played simultaneously, called heterophony.
"The continuity and diagetic function of almost all vocal melody draw us along the linear thread of the song's syntagmatic structure, producing a 'point of perspective' from which the otherwise disparate parts of the musical texture can be placed within a coherent 'image'." (Middleton 1990, p.264)
See also: unified field.
- Apel, Willi. Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd edition, p.517-19. Includes "a capsule definition of melody." (Delone et al 1975, p.270)
- Edwards, Arthur C. The Art of Melody, p.xix-xxx. Includes "a catalog of sample definitions." (ibid)
- Smits van Waesberghe, J. A Textbook of Melody. Includes "an attempt to formulate a theory of melody." (ibid)
- DeLone et. al. (Eds.) (1975). Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music, chap. 4. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0130493465.
- Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.