CHAPTER 3: MELODY
Dr. N. Boumpani and Dr. J. Carteret
The one musical activity that almost every human being is capable of is singing. Many of us may not have pleasant voices and, when we do sing, our loved ones may ask us to either sing softly, or maybe even sing somewhere else! Still, even with a bad voice, most everyone enjoys singing. When we do sing, we almost always sing the melody of a familiar song. This is our starting point in our musical vocabulary - melody.
Most texts will define the word melody in much the same manner: a series of pitches that move by steps and leaps and together crate a complete entity. In short, one might call a melody "a musical sentence." The melody is the usually the main aspect of most works of music. It is the part of music that we sing back, or the part that catches our attention as the most important element of any work of music.
To understand melody, whether that of a country song, or a hip-hop work, we do have to recognize that the melody rarely stays on the same "pitch." The word pitch means different things in different situations. In baseball, it means throwing the ball toward another player who is attempting to hit that ball. In architecture, the word pitch means the angle at which something is built. For example, when building a house, the roof is built to a certain "pitch" meaning an angle at which the roof slops from the top to the bottom. In music the word "pitch" means the highness or lowness of a sound. When one hears a tuba, or a bass guitar, the pitches are generally lower than the pitches that are created by a trumpet, flute, or female singer. This means that "pitch" is a relative term. A trombone creates pitches that are usually higher than a tuba, but many of those same trombone pitches are much lower than a clarinet. Therefore, when we speak of pitch in a musical situation, we are often speaking of one pitch in relation to another pitch. Pitch in music usually refers to specific sounds that can be measures based on vibrations per second. When you hear someone sing a song, every syllable is sung on a specific pitch.
To create a sound, an object has to be set in vibration. Those vibrations then travel through the air as “waves” until they reach our eardrums. Our eardrums accept these vibrations and send them to our brain where the brain interprets them. The brain not only translates these vibrations into sound, but also translates the vibrations into sounds associated with the object vibrating. If a trumpet plays the pitch “A,” our brain interprets the sound into a pitch and recognizes that the pitch is from a trumpet. Consider the fact that another instrument, like a flute, can play that very same pitch, and your brain would interpret that sound as an “A” coming from a flute. Can you now begin to understand how amazing our brains can be? Our brains interpret the “tone quality” of whatever instrument or voice we are hearing. When we talk about the “tone color” of an instrument or voice, we are talking about the instrument’s timbre (pronounced tahm-bur). We will discuss this later, but, for now, just know that every instrument has its own special timbre.
Music is built on very specific pitches. If one were to go to a piano and press any of the keys down, specific pitches would be heard. These pitches are the same on every piano in the world. The same could be said for the instruments, or the human voice. If you play on key at the far left of the piano, then press a key somewhere on the far right, the distance between the two would be considered a leap. If you were to press a key anywhere on the piano, the press the key that is right next to it, the distance would be a step. Melodies use a variety of “leaps” and “steps” to create a memorable entity. If we were to define a melody by “a series of notes that move by steps and leaps” the following short music clip would be a melody. Let's listen to some pitches that move by steps and leaps.
EXAMPLE: Melody or Not N. Boumpani
The pitches heard in the sound clip above were in linear order, in other words, they came one after the other, and they were different pitches. Do you think we can call this a melody? Probably not. A melody really should communicate something that is greater than just a group of pitches played randomly. Let's hear another set of pitches, but this time we will put them in an order that makes more sense to our ears. We will be using pitches of different durations (we will discuss this more in the chapter on rhythm). For now, it means we are using pitches that sound longer or shorter then other pitches.
EXAMPLE: Melody N. Boumpani
Most people would consider this a melody because it makes sense to us. We have heard the music of our culture throughout our lives and, even without knowing how or why music works, our brain has developed expectations. This is so developed in some people that, even if they do not know how to read or write music according to the rules of music, they can create complete musical songs. Listen to this next musical clip and then explain what you hear. What do you hear that makes sense? Do you hear anything that doesn’t quite fit?
EXAMPLE: What next? N. Boumpani
Most of you will notice something missing right away because, even though you may have never heard this music before, your brain had expectations as to what was going to happen next. As we said above, your brain has been trained to hear music that follows certain rules, even though you may not know nor understand these rules. Your brain probably told you that there was something missing at the end of this clip, and that is correct. As we study harmony next, we will discuss this expectation. As this course examines music of the past and its influence on the music of today, there will be some music that does not fit our cultural expectations.
Whether classical, country, or hip hop, melodies share some commonalities. First, they are all "horizontally linear." This means the melody is built on a series of sounds that come one after the other, much like a line, or words in a sentence. Another commonality is that they usually include more than one pitch. The way these pitches move together is not random, as in audio file 2-A2 above. Melodies move according to the rules and expectations of the time in which they were written. In order to understand contour, we need to understand “steps,” “skips,” and “leaps” When we say that melodies move stepwise, or in a stepwise manner, we mean that the pitches are generally close together as the melody progresses. In the figure below there are a number of notes that move from one line, to the next space, to the next line, etc. This is “stepwise” movement. The figure below gives an example of a melody moving stepwise, even though there are a few short “skips.” A skip is usually when the melody is on a line, then skips to the next line above or below it, or may be on a space and skips to the next space above or below it. Every note in the melody below moves by step to the next note, except for where the skip occurs.
When we discuss “leaps,” we are describing large gaps between some of the pitches. Often, after a melody makes a large leap, the pitches that follow the leap usually move stepwise and in a different direction from the leap (think of the first line of Somewhere Over the Rainbow or The Christmas Song). The figure below demonstrates the idea of “leaps” in melodies.
When we examine these melodies, we find that the melodic line has a contour. Having a contour means having a “shape” the we can hear and, when written down in musical notation, we can see.
Students are not required to learn to read musical notation for this course; however, the book will, at times, use written music to help explain a concept. As we discuss things like “steps” and “leaps in a melody, we will use musical notation to help you “see” and hear the musical contour.
Contour is based on how the steps and leaps work together to make a shape. We will now “see” and hear some examples of melodic contour. Below are some examples of melodies written on music manuscript (the type of paper that composers use to write music and performers use to read it and perform it). Notice, by looking and hearing, that each of these melodies has a different contour, yet both are smooth.
EXAMPLE: Rollercoaster N. Boumpani
EXAMPLE: The Rolling Hills N. Boumpani
The examples above are of melodies in which the pitches move a little from pitch to pitch. This creates a what musicians call a "smooth contour." Let’s listen to a song that you may know. The name this work is often known by is Greensleeves. This work was written long ago so we do not know who wrote this work. When the composer of a work is unknown, the abbreviation anon (for anonymous) is listed as the composer. We will listen to two recordings of this work, one instrumental and one vocal. Listening to the music and looking at the musical notation below gives you an idea of what we mean by a relatively smooth melodic contour. There are a few big “leaps” in this work, but they take place mainly after the end of one melodic statement.
EXAMPLE: Greensleeves anon (instrumental version)
For the vocal performance, the melody is essentially the same; however, the melody in this version is initially sung by one of the male voices as the other voices sing an accompaniment part. About halfway into this work you will hear the entire chorus sing the words in harmony as the highest female voices sing the melody. Listen how the melody is essentially the same as the first version, but you may find this version more familiar.
EXAMPLE: Greensleeves, anon (vocal rendition)
CONTOUR WITH LEAPS AND STEPS
The next example shows a melody with gaps between some of the pitches. These are called “leaps” and are heard often in marches, fanfares, and popular music. Melodies like these have a more jagged contour. In this example we are hearing a work by Bach that was written originally for organ, but has been arranged for a famous brass ensemble known as the Canadian Brass. If you want to see this performed, please look on YouTube for the video. The melody for this work is shown in the notation below. A fugue (pronounced fewg) is a special kind of musical form that was mastered by Johann Sebastian Bach, someone we will discuss later. The melody of the fugue is used throughout the work in very interesting ways. For our purposes, we will examine the melodic contour of the melody. Notice how there is more space between the notes below. These represent leaps. You need only listen to the first minute of this work; however, as you hear how Bach passes the subject along from instrument to instrument, you might find it interesting to listen to the entire work. The work is not long.
EXAMPLE: Fugue in g minor BW573 J. S. Bach
Most melodies use a combination of leaps and steps which, when combined correctly, help to make melodies more memorable. As we explore music throughout this text, you will become more aware of melodic contour.
PARTS OF A MELODY: PHRASES AND CADENCES
Many melodies are made up of smaller sections called phrases. These phrases usually end in some kind of pause in the music. The pauses at the end of phrases are called cadences. Some cadences are just musical pauses that need to be followed by another phrase. This kind of pause leaves the listener feeling as if the melody was not complete. Consider musical phrases like punctuation in a sentence. Cadences that make the listener feel as if the music must progress, are like commas in sentences. Other cadences give the impression that the musical phrase has come to an end, either of the work, or a section. That kind of cadence is like the period at the end of a sentence. A melody without cadences would not allow the listener to make sense of the combination of sounds. To better understand cadences, let’s examine a run-on sentence without punctuation. A melody without cadences is just like a run-on sentence.
EXAMPLE: run on sentence:
I told her that I did not like that movie because the actor is just so bad and the music is really slow and I don’t like the places where they filmed the music it reminds me of my class trip in 11th grade where Mr. Smith lost the bus and we had to wait for an hour and my mom was mad that I did not buy her the souvenir that I was supposed to get and Shelly dropped that ice cream on my pants when we were on the bus and that bad driver cut us off………
EXAMPLE: Never Ending Melody N. Boumpani
That is why cadences are important to a musical work. A composer must understand cadences, whether he or she is writing a symphony, or a popular song. Taking just the beginning of that same melody, and making a few changes and adding cadences, it begins to make more sense.
EXAMPLE: Melody with Cadences N. Boumpani
If you listen to the melody again, you should find that the first cadence occurs around 11 seconds from the beginning of the file. This cadence does not sound as if the melody could end there, so we could assume that this cadence is like a comma in a sentence at that point. When the music ends at 22 seconds into the file, the music sounds as if it has come to end. This cadence would represent a period. In music, many times a melody will come to a cadence like this, but the music would continue with a new phrase that will be part of another musical statement.
We will now listen to a more familiar melody from Beethoven’s 9th symphony. This melody is made up of four phrases. The first phrase does not sound as if the melody is complete, but at the end of the second phrase we do get one complete section. Think of this like a “musical sentence.” The next phrase, again, does not sound complete, but the final phrase does.
EXAMPLE: “Ode to Joy” from Symphony #9, Op 125, Beethoven.
In the Beethoven melody above, there are slight pauses at the end of each phrase. Each phrase is 16 beats, or 4 measures in length as shown in the figure above (again, do not worry about these terms at present). These cadences have different functions; the cadences at the end of the first and third phrase are like “commas” in a sentence, in other words, the melody is not finished at that point and the listener expects more. Much like a sentence, musical statements often have two phrases: an antecedent phrase and a consequent phrase. The function much like a “question and answer” statement. The cadences at the end of the second phrase complete a musical “sentence” (called a period) and the melody could end there. The cadence at the end of the 4th phrase is definitely conclusive and the listener knows the melody is complete. Notice that the first and third phrases end on cadences that don’t sound as if we have made it to the end because the melodic note does not sound as if we have “made it home” in the musical sense. The second and fourth phrases end on notes that sound as if we have “made it home.” A good, everyday definition of a melody is a “musical sentence.”
As you listen to music on an everyday basis, you will notice the use of phrases and cadences everywhere. Sometimes composers do interesting things with cadences that are unexpected, but helps make their music more interesting and exciting. As you listen to more and more music, both through this course and on your own, try to begin to hear cadences.
MELODIES THROUGH THE AGES
If we listen to a popular song that many young people may know, many of you can sing along with the melody. We will start with a melody that you probably know. The instructor may ask you for some suggestions so that he or she can explain the parts of the melody as we have outlined above. Since we can’t use a popular song within this text (because of copyright issues) the instructor may select a melody from among your suggestions. You will notice that almost all melodies have phrases and cadences. The phrases are often set up like in “question-answer” patterns.
Most popular melodies follow a pattern, or form, that was established around the time of Beethoven. In the Classical Era (1750-1820) melodies tended to be simple, balanced and based on evenly-spaced phrases. Music from this time period almost always followed the “question-answer” formula used for creating melodies. It must be noted, however, that the “question-answer” formula had been used in folk melodies for centuries. In this section of the text we will be examining the evolution of melodies in western music. This will not only show us how melodies changed over time, but show us how melodies in the music you hear today may be similar to melodies in the music you hear today. In other words, although things change, they often stay the same.
THE MIDDLE AGES
As we will examine in subsequent chapters, there are only a few examples of written music before the Middle Ages. For the most part, we do not know how the music of ancient Greece or Rome sounded. Music historians have come up with some ideas, based on the instruments of the eras, but there is a lot we simply cannot know.
Melodies of Medieval times were single melodies without any harmony. These melodies were called “chants” and became known as Gregorian Chants after the Pope of the times. When you are listening to a melody without any other pitches being performed at the same time, you are listing to music with a monophonic texture. (We will discuss texture further in the chapter on harmony, but it is a good idea to start discussing it now.)
The characteristics of these chants included smooth contours, a meditative sound that was supposed to invite an atmosphere of worship, and the use of scales that sound strange to modern people. (This will be explained in the next chapter.)
An example of a famous chant from a special mass is the “Dies Irae”, or “Day of Wrath” chant. This music was from a Requiem Mass, or a mass for the dead. This music is meant to portray the judgement of God at the end of time as He pours His wrath out upon the sinners of the world. As you listen to this and other chants, they will most likely sound strange to your ears. At the time they were written, many different musical scales were utilized, but, over time, most were forgotten. Listen to only the first 1:20 of Dies Irae.
EXAMPLE: MIDDLE AGES – Gregorian Chant Dies Irae
THE BAROQUE ERA
From the 5th century, we will leap forward into the Baroque Era (1600-1750). Melodies during this time were much different. The many scales of ancient times had been abandoned and, for the most part, only major and minor scales remained (more on this later). Also, Baroque melodies were sometimes very long, and the flowing manner tends to make them hard to remember. Let’s listen to another melody by Bach that is a good example of a Baroque-style melody. You only need listen to about 30 seconds of this melody to get this point. Another work by Bach that demonstrates this concept is from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major. BW1068. You may recognize this melody, either from television or film, or perhaps from a wedding; however, several popular music stars of the past 50 years have used this melody as the basis of one of their popular songs.
EXAMPLE: Orchestral Suite #3 in D Major BWV 1068 “Aire on the G String” listen to the first 1:35 mark of this one (although it is such a beautiful piece, you can certainly listen more)
THE CLASSICAL ERA
Going forward into the Classical Era (1750-1820), the melodies become easier to follow and remember. We have already heard one melody by Beethoven that demonstrates balanced phrases with cadences in a questions-answer format. We will now hear another melody with the same format by Franz Joseph Haydn, another Classical composer. We will learn more about Haydn later in this course.
EXAMPLE: Theme from Symphony #94 in G “Surprise symphony” mvt II Haydn
Melodies are the most recognizable parts of any musical work. Melodies are built on a series of pitches that are put together in ways that make a “memorable whole” and can be called a “musical sentence.” When discussing pitches, the words high and low are used. Melodies, like sentences, need punctuation and, in music, cadences represent the commas and periods found in written text. A good melody will have some cadences that represent commas, but usually end with a cadence that represents the period at the end of a sentence.
As we have seen, the pitches in a melody can move in stepwise manner, from one note in a scale to the next, or they can jump to another pitch further away. The proper balance of steps and jumps is essential in communicating a melody to a listener. If the composer does not create melodies that make sense to the listener, that listener will stop listening. A well-written, memorable melody will use the right combination of steps and jumps that will create a melodic contour that is easily understood and remembered by the listener.
We discussed how melodies changed over time, starting with the Gregorian Chant of the Middle Ages where the melodies moved mainly stepwise and monophonic, through the long, flowing melodies of the Baroque, to the balanced, folk-music-like melodies of the Classical Era. As we move through this course, we will hear how melodies have changed over the centuries as well as how they relate to the music we hear today.