Melody – What It Is?
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We hear about melody constantly. It’s a major part of the music and has been for centuries. But what exactly is a melody? There are several definitions that try to explain the concept. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines melody as “a sweet or agreeable succession or arrangement of sounds, a melody is a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying”. Then again, ‘satisfying to whom?’, you might ask. After all, I can think of several melodies that are not satisfying to me.
Wikipedia defines melody as a “linear succession of musical notes that the listener may perceive as a single entity”. Although a good definition, it leaves the door opened for potential differences in perception from the listener. Perhaps an accomplished professional musician might be more prone to recognizing a complex melody as so, whereas a common listener might not. Despite the limitations of these definitions, here we will try to explore what a melody is in order to have a better grasp on this concept. Let’s dive in!
A melody has rhythm incorporated
Every melody has notes that have a particular duration. The duration of the notes is the rhythm. Some of the notes in the melody will be longer than others. That is what constitutes the rhythm. Oh, but what is the rhythm exactly? Well, if you want another Merriam-Webster definition, here it is: “rhythm is the aspect of music comprising all the elements (such as accent, meter, and tempo) that relate to forward movement”. Was that helpful? No? How about… rhythm in music is the placement of sounds in time.
Regardless of what definitions work best for you, the fact is that a melody has pitches with a specific duration, as well as incorporated pauses or rests. The duration of the pitches and the duration of the rests are what constitutes the rhythm.
Well-known melodies are easily recognizable
Regardless of who’s listening, there are some melodies that are recognized as such by most people. Remember “Mary Had a Little Lamb”? How about “Ode to Joy”? Those are instantly recognizable melodies. How about “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”? All of these fit all the definitions from above. They are a succession of pitches that happen to be recognizable and are also perceived as a unit.
All of these melodies also have pitches and rests of a particular duration. Remember “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Amazing Grace”? Those are also well-known melodies…
Melodies can be short, long, or anything in between
Let’s take the classic rock song “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. What the lead singer sings is the melody of that song. It is also the most recognizable part of the song. Oh, but how about that immortal riff that Slash plays at the top and later on? That is also a melody. And, so is the three guitar solos on that song. There’s the first guitar solo/interlude, which is a melody. The second and longer guitar solo is also composed of melodies. And the very last guitar solo, which overlaps with the lead singer's voice is also a melody. Are you getting the hang of this?
There is melody and then there is “the melody”
What is the melody of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”? Well, the melody of that song is what Michael sings. Oh, but what about that iconic bass line that starts the song. Well, yes, that is also a melody. But it is not “the melody” of the song. The same is true for “Under Pressure” from Queen/David Bowie. And there are countless other examples that feature a very recognizable instrumental part, which is not the main melody of the song.
Typically, the melody of the song is what the singer sings. In popular music, that melody usually has words. Then again, “oh’s”, “ah’s” and any other combination of vowels or syllables can be used in melodies.
Melody in a song
The most popular vehicle for music today is the song. A song has three basic elements: melody, lyrics, and harmony. The element of lyrics does not really require an explanation. It is basically the words that the singer sings. Of course, these come attached to a melody. And underneath it all there’s the chords, also known as the harmony.
Making the melody memorable is very challenging and is the goal of songwriters all across the globe. How do you do that? I really wish I knew… I’d be rich by now! In any case, the melody is the most recognizable aspect of a song. Its importance cannot be overstated. The ‘catchiness’ of a melody either makes or breaks the song.
Wrapping it all up
There’s nothing like a melody that you can’t get out of your head. That kind of power has made melodies the centerpiece of music, especially in the last 100 years or so. How can a simple group of notes that one can recognize as an entity be so powerful? There have been entire books written about this! The truth is melody has probably existed since the first human beings inhabited this planet.
A melody, which is just a succession of notes and rests, can spark joy, sadness, longing, etc. Regardless of technology, changes in the world and any other disruptive happenings, the power of melody is unlikely to fade. And I for one could not be happier about that.
That’s it for this week. Stay tuned and…