melody, succession of single tones of varying pitch. Melody is the linear aspect of music, in contrast to harmony, the chordal aspect, which results from the simultaneous sounding of tones. Melody must be considered with rhythm; they are the two necessary elements to music. Melody by itself, i.e., monophonic music, was the principal form of composition in Western cultures before the year 1000. It remains in folk song and in many non-Western cultures. From 1000 melody was combined with one or more different melodies. The polyphonic music thus created dominated composition until about 1600 when homophonic music, melody supported by harmonies, was developed in Italy and slowly spread throughout Europe in the following century. See polyphony and harmony.

Rhythmic succession of single tones organized as an aesthetic whole. The melody is often the highest line in a musical composition. Melodies may suggest their own harmony or counterpoint. As fundamental as rhythm and metre (and more so than harmony), melody is common to all musical cultures.

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In music, a melody (from Greek μελῳδία - melōidía, "singing, chanting), also tune, voice, or line, is a series of linear events or a succession, not a simultaneity as in a chord (see harmony). 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 is said to result where there are interacting patterns of changing events occurring in time."

Change is necessary for events "to be understood as related or unrelated." Melodies often consist of one or more musical phrases, motifs, and are 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 (predominantly conjuct or disjunct or with further restrictions), pitch range, tension and release, continuity and coherence, cadence, and shape. "Many extant explanations [of melody] confine us [sic] to specific stylistic models, and they are too exclusive."


The melodies in most European music written before the 20th century features recurring "events, often periodic, at all structural levels" and "recurrence of durations and patterns of durations" are also important in 20th century music.

While in the 20th century pitch includes "those aspects of sound that are classed as having highness or lowness" earlier music included almost exclusively sounds having "fixed and easily discernible frequency patterns" and composers have "utilized a greater variety of pitch resources than has been the custom in any other historical period of Western music." While materials from the diatonic scale are still used, the twelve-tone scale became "widely employed."

DeLone states


However, quality is not an essential element of melody, as the same melody is recognizable when played with a wide variety of timbres, textures, and loudness.

Melodies in the 20th century where increasingly reliant "upon the qualitative dimensions" with those dimensions "in pre-twentieth century music were almost exclusively reserved for pitch and rhythm" such as being an "element of linear ordering" rather than a highlight to "the more predominant pitch and rhythmic aspects." See Klangfarbenmelodie and Musique concrète.


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."

See also

Further reading

  • 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)
  • Holst, Imogen. Tune, Faber and Faber, London, 1962.
  • Smits van Waesberghe, J. A Textbook of Melody. Includes "an attempt to formulate a theory of melody." (ibid)


External links

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