Have you ever whistled a tune out loud for everybody within earshot to hear? If so, you were whistling a melody, perhaps without even knowing it.
But what exactly is a melody in music and why is it so fundamentally important? These are questions that every musician has asked themselves time and again throughout history.
Fortunately, the answer is rather quite simple, as you’ll soon discover for yourself.
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The Fundamentals Present In Every Song
Take a moment to listen to almost any song and you’ll be immersed in a number of factors, perhaps without even knowing it. Because music is so widespread and commonplace, we often take for granted what is happening to make a good song so great.
At the most basic level, pretty much every song in existence is built from 3 different factors:
All of these things work together to create the bigger picture though they can certainly exist independently. Plus, you’ll find that there are elements of these factors at play within these categories themselves.
It might seem obvious that the rhythm generally refers to the song's tempo. However, any song with multiple layers often utilizes unique rhythms for each individual layer.
For instance, a drum beat has its own rhythm, as does a bass line, a piano line, and a guitar phrase. Each of these roles will be respecting the rules of harmony with regard to the composition’s melody.
Harmony is essentially the supporting (or accompanying) chord progression that exists throughout any given song. Some chord progressions themselves have built-in melodies that exist due to harmonic exposition built from note intervals.
Harmonic ideas tend to make more sense with a melody. This is because harmony is designed to accompany the melody, much like a piano would accompany a solo singer.
The melody, however, is often considered one of the most important aspects of any song. You can think of the melody as a sort of signature calling card that allows the song to be easily identified.
For instance, if you were to whistle any song that you could think of, you’d generally be whistling the melody. It is the main musical idea that takes the spotlight, with everything else acting as support for that melody to exist.
Melodies can exist on their own as a simple, unaccompanied phrase. Even if the melody is alone (such as somebody singing a cappella), the melody itself is developed from harmonic ideas and has its own unique rhythm.
Now that you have a very small and brief taste of what a song is built from, let’s take a deeper dive into the melody itself.
What Are Some Characteristics Of Melody?
No matter what song you choose to analyze, you’ll come to find that melodies typically share a few characteristics. Once you are able to easily identify the melody of a song, you’ll find that every melody shares these qualities:
- The melody is often repeated throughout the song
- Melodies are extremely memorable by design
Depending on the song, the melodies can become fairly complex beyond a simple line. In fact, you’ll often find that many melodies have different parts, with a main idea along with some supporting ideas.
You’re probably familiar with the idea that songs can be comprised of verses, choruses, and a bridge. Melody tends to follow these same sorts of ideas, no matter if the song features singing or is purely instrumental.
What Are Some Iconic Melodies That Everybody Knows?
If you were to throw a dart at any song, you’d inevitably be able to pick out its melody. But if you are still feeling a little confused about what a melody is, let’s look at some very famous instances you probably already know.
For this, we’ll start out extremely basic and work our way to more complex ideas. Along the way, you’ll discover how the fundamentals are essentially the same no matter how complex the idea becomes.
You’ll also discover how different melodies are built from the perspective of ideas. These will give you some ideas to use when creating your own melodies.
You know that song everybody sings to somebody when their birthday comes along? Well, you guessed it, when you’re singing the words of this song, you’re actually singing the melody.
Most people will sing this song a cappella, without any accompaniment whatsoever. However, if you listen to the accompaniment (such as the piano in the video), Happy Birthday’s harmony becomes apparent.
Even with just a basic listening session, you’ll be able to tell how Happy Birthday’s melody is derived from its harmonic information.
The Beatles – Yellow Submarine
The Beatles have a massive catalog of iconic melodies, but Yellow Submarine’s simplicity serves well here. This is a track that can easily be sung without any additional instrumentation.
Though the song begins with a verse, the chorus is actually the main melody. It’s designed to be repeated, with lyrics that are very simple and memorable enough for anyone to recall.
The chorus itself essentially features one main idea that is repeated at least twice. Within this main idea, the song’s title is repeated 3 times, which helps to provide its memorable quality.
The song’s verse sections are built from a different idea that repeats as needed. You’ll notice there might be some small embellishments sprinkled in depending on the rhythmic dictation of each verse’s lyrics.
John Coltrane – My Favorite Things
Jazz music is often quite daunting for any casual music listener to analyze, especially when it comes to John Coltrane. However, you’ll be surprised to know that, while jazz can be ridiculously complex, a melodic aspect is often present.
While jazz typically features improvisation, the improvised sections are generally divided by a melodic component called the “tag”. The tag often stays the same throughout the song and serves as a sort of moment of cohesion that everyone joins in with.
My Favorite Things has an extremely recognizable melody due to its origin in The Sound Of Music. After the harmonic context is set up, you’ll hear Coltrane play the tag melody before he inevitably goes off the deep end into improvisation.
This melody is an excellent example because it is built in a specific way. When decoding the melody from its beginning, you’ll find that it consists of:
- An idea repeated twice
- An embellishment of the idea that retains a similar form and sound but is wholly different
- Something completely different that resolves any harmonic tension and sets the melody up to be repeated again
Are There Certain Music Genres That Do Not Have Melody?
You might be wondering…can a song exist without a melody? Surely a song based on drums would be without melody, right?
Well…no. Something like a drum circle or solo does have its own melodic aspects defined by the pitch of each drum.
With that being said, the melody seems to exist in just about every song that utilizes musical pitches. However, depending on the context, the melody itself might not always be forthcoming and readily identified.
Even experimental avant-garde music has melody, though it might not be melody in the traditional sense as outlined above. For instance, most people probably wouldn’t consider noise from a guitar pedal to exactly count as something melodic.
While some genres attempt to break all the rules, it’s important to remember that the melody is a song’s main, spotlighted idea. If a song’s main idea can be hummed in any manner (no matter how bizarre), it can be considered a melody.
Furthermore, just the distinction of being the main idea alone can be enough to be deemed a melody.
How Can I Write My Own Melodies?
Coming up with your own melodies is an important aspect to integrate if you want to become a competent musician. Melodic components will play a role in almost every aspect of a song that you create.
One of the easiest ways to create your own melody is to hum something simple. Often, what comes naturally is far more effective than something derived from a formulaic principle.
However, that’s not to say that principle guidelines are ineffective. As you’ve seen in the examples above, each song’s melody is composed with its own formula.
You can easily adapt some of those formulas for your own music. The biggest characteristic that you’ll often find yourself using is the use of repeated lines.
Repetition is necessary for something to become memorable. After all, the only way to memorize something is through repetition itself.
Even if you’re not a singer, you’ll be able to apply melodic aspects to guitar, piano, bass, drums, or any other instrument. However, regardless of the instrument, you will want to approach it as if you were actually singing.
This is especially true with instrumental solos and passages that you want to be memorable and integral rather than something serving as an example of technical prowess.
No matter how complex you wish your melody to be, it can likely be boiled down to a few simple ideas. More simplicity lends itself to being more memorable.
What Is A Melody In Music, Final Thoughts
The melody is the most identifiable aspect of any song, acting as the song’s main musical idea. While a melody can be a singular thing, it is often comprised of smaller ideas that have their own melodic characteristics.
One of the biggest keys to writing a song that becomes popular is making sure that the melody is memorable. Aside from lyrics, songwriters will often find themselves stuck and overthinking what a song’s melody should be.