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Musical Elements

Melody and Harmony

Peter Kun Frary


We all recognize a melody when we hear one but it's challenging to define. My iOS dictionary defines melody as "a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying." Of course, that definition describes bird song or wind chimes for some listeners!

Reach Out | Peter Kun Frary

What is Melody?

First, like bird song, melody has pitch and duration. What separates human melodies from bird song? Our tones are organized: add up to a recognizable whole with a sense of beginning and ending, i.e., a feeling of tension and release. The organization of melody is linked to human breath capacity, language and thought patterns. In other words, melodies tend to be structured similarly to speech patterns. After all, the genesis of melody is human singing.

There are aspects of melody that are quantifiable. For example, range refers to the distance from lowest to highest note in the melody. Range is expressed as an interval, e.g., an octave and fifth. Hymns and folk songs tend to have a relatively narrow range, e.g., octave or less, whereas an operatic aria may exceed two octaves.

Movement from note to note in a melody may be described as stepwise or by leap. For example, a simple hymn such as Ode to Joy uses stepwise movement, i.e., moves up and down the scale without skipping tones. Some melodies, such as Somewhere Over the Rainbow, mix stepwise and movement by leap together:

If notes flow smoothly, the melody is said to be legato. If the notes are short and detached, the melody is said to be staccato. Here's an example of a staccato melody:

Listen to the Ode to Joy track below. Notice that the melody moves in stepwise motion and is legato? If you sing the scale from the lowest to the highest note in the melody, you'll find five consecutive pitches are used, yielding a range of a fifth.

Ode to Joy | Stepwise and legato movement


Did you notice that Ode to Joy is organized in two segments? Each segment starts the same but ends with a longer duration. These segments are called phrases, i.e., a musical sentence. The longer duration at the end of each phrase creates a sense of repose and is called a cadence. Vocalists and wind players normally breathe after the cadence. Here's the first phrase (a) of Ode to Joy:

And the second phrase (a'):

The cadence at the end of the first phrase is unstable, ending on the second note of the scale (re), and sounds as if a question has been raised. This type of cadence is called an incomplete cadence. The cadence at the end of the second phrase lands on the first note of the scale (do or tonic) and thus sounds stable or complete—the answer to the question. This stable cadence is called a complete cadence. The coupling of two phrases together in a question-answer relationship creates a sense of balance and is typical of song forms.

For phrase analysis, label each phrase with a lower case letter: a, b, c, etc. If phrases are identical, use the same letter, e.g., a a. If a phrase is similar but has a significant variation, a prime symbol is added: a a'. If a phrase introduces new material (contrast), a different letter is used, e.g., a b. The two phrases of Ode to Joy are organized in an a a' relationship, same melody but differing cadences.

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Melodies are build around a central tone possessing a pull similar to magnetic attraction: less stable tones tend to move towards more stable tones. Again, listen to Ode to Joy. The incomplete cadence at the end of the first phase finishes on D, an unstable note, thus creating an impetus to move to the next phrase. The final note, C, is the most stable and restful note of the melody, and thus is called the keynote or tonic.

Ode to Joy

The sounding of stable and unstable notes in a melody establishes a hierarchy of musical tones in the mind of the listener. When this hierarchy of tones is arranged in order of ascending or descending pitch, it is called a scale and may be expressed as solfège: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.

The melody of Ode to Joy was created from the do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do sequence of tones, i.e., C major scale. Thus, Ode to Joy is said to be in the key of C major. Both the scale and key are named after the tonic or keynote.

Although there are thousands of scales, the major scale is the most important and familiar to Western listeners. The major scale is easily identified aurally but is technically defined by a specific sequence of intervals called whole and half steps.

A half step is the smallest interval used in Western music and is equivalent to moving from a black to a white key on a piano, moving one fret on a guitar or ukulele (on same string) or singing from ti to do. A whole step is equal to two half steps.

Piano Keyboard | The half step is the smallest interval in Western music and may be created by playing adjacent white and black keys.

The major scale has a pattern of whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. I prefer to remember the major scale pattern as having a half step between the 3rd and 4th tones and the 7th and 8th tones. The remaining tones are separated by whole steps.

Changing Key

The interval pattern of whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half may begin on any pitch. For example, if the pattern started on G, we call it a G major scale and in the key of G major. If the pattern begins on D, it's a D major scale, etc. To maintain the correct interval spacing of whole and half steps, symbols called accidentals are used:

Here's our original C major scale followed by three more scales employing accidentals to adjust interval spacing, thereby changing the scales and keys to D major, E major and F major.

In actual use, accidentals are mainly used to notate exceptional pitches outside of normal scale tones in a key, i.e., dissonant or chromatic tones. Typically a key signature, placed at the beginning of each stave, is used to indicate regularly occurring sharps or flats:

The key signature above indicates flats on the B line, E space and A space, i.e., all B, E and A notes are played a half step lower, resulting in the key of E-flat major.

Listen to a phrase from Ode to Joy in the key of C major. Next, listen to the transposed version below it. Sharps on the F line and C space indicate F and C are played a half step higher, i.e., resulting in the key of D major. The term transpose means the same melody and/or chords are used but pitched higher or lower. In this case, the melody is transposed up a whole step.


A chord is a group of three or more notes sounded together. Here's the sound of chords:

The presentation of chords one note at a time is called an arpeggio, i.e., broken chord:

The process of connecting and organizing chords is called harmony. Historically, harmony is a somewhat recent development, first appearing in 16th century Europe. Prior to contact with the West, harmony was largely absent from non-Western music.

Initially, harmony was the haphazard result of combining of two or more melodic lines. By the middle of the 17th century, harmony became a deliberate structure with composers writing melodies to fit particular chords. The role of harmony began as a backdrop or frame for melody but evolved to provide enhancement to the formal structure and emotional aspects of the music.

A sequence of chords progressing from one chord to another is called a chord progression. Here's a four chord progression in the key of G major:

The track in the video below, Betty Lou of '52, is based on a four-chord progression: C, Am, F, G7 (first two measures). These four chords are presented in arpeggio form and repeated over and over as a backdrop for a simple melody:

Betty Lou of '52 | Peter Kun Frary

The principle behind chord progressions is dissonance chords, i.e., less stable chords, progress to consonance or more stable chords. Why? Dissonance chords are unstable and thereby create forward motion, propelling the chord progression from chord to chord.

In Betty Lou of '52, the fourth chord, G7, is the most unstable and has a strong pull back to the stable C chord. The C chord, built on the first note of the scale, is called the tonic chord. The G7 chord, built on the 5th note of the scale, is known as the dominant chord. The progression of dominant to tonic in the final two chords, G7 to C, creates a sense of repose known as a harmonic cadence.

Harmony varies considerably across centuries and cultures. As we work through different eras and styles of music, we'll examine harmony and how it's used in more detail.


range, legato, staccato, phrase, cadence, incomplete cadence, complete cadence, keynote, key, major scale, tonic, half step, whole step, accidental, key signature, transpose, harmony, chord, chord progression, arpeggio, harmonic cadence, dominant chord, tonic chord

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