Music Theory
Arranging
Ethnomusicology
Acoustic Composition
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What are the key characteristics of a melody?

When someone hears a melody, what’s the first thing(s) they notice? Is it the specific notes that comprise the melody? The rhythm and meter? The scale or group of notes the melody is made of? The shape of the melody?

The short and quick answer here is:

YES!

All of these things make up a melody and everyone perceives music differently. Let’s take a deeper look at some of these defining traits of a melody using the 500 year old song Flow, My Tears by John Dowland:

Notes

We already discussed that melodies are made of repeating notes and repeating groups of notes. A good arranger will always honor the original melody, but is not afraid to make changes when necessary. Here are some common melodic variations:

  • Repetition – repeating a small phrase or group of notes
  • Inversion – turning the contour of the melody upside, i.e. an ascending 5th becomes a descending 5th. It’s important to note that diatonic inversion preserves the key of the original example whereas chromatic inversion preserves the exact intervals of the example. Which type of inversion occurs below?
  • Retrograde – playing a melody backwards
Measures 1-4 are a retrograde of measures 1-4 of the original melody. Measures 5 – 10 are a chromatic inversion of the melody around the root note. Measures 11 – 14 contain motivic repetition that elaborates, or develops, the original melody.

Rhythm

Some common rhythmic variations used by arrangers and composers include:

  • Augmentation – lengthening the duration of the rhythm. Doubling the length (2: quarter note to half note) is the most common form of augmentation, however, it’s also possible to lengthen notes by any factor (1.5: quarter note to dotted quarter, 3: quarter note to dotted half, etc…)
  • Diminution – shortening the duration of the rhythm. Most often, arrangers/composers halve the length of the notes, but again there are many possibilities.
  • Changing the meter – Adjusting the note lengths to fit into an entirely different meter. Some common examples would be moving from 2/4 time to 6/8 time or moving from 4/4 to 3/4 time.
Measures 1 -4 are a diminution of measures 1-8 of the original melody. Measures 5-10 are an augmentation of measures 9-11 of the original melody. The meter was changed from 4/4 to 3/4 time in measures 11-16.

Key

Changing the key of a melody is an effective technique that’s commonly used in classical music. Most commonly the arranger/composer moves the melody to it’s parallel major or minor key. For example, a C major melody might be reprised in C minor later on in the piece. It’s also possible to move the melody to an entirely unrelated key.

Measures 1-10 moves the key from A minor to A major. Measures 11-16 transpose the A major melody to the subtonic key (G major).

Contour

We’ve already discussed that the contour of the melody is how the notes rise and fall. What we didn’t discuss is how contour can be used to create new melodies that sound similar to the original. This is done by preserving the contour while freely changing the notes. This is done by first labeling all of the notes from lowest to highest like this:

The lowest note is the D4, the highest note is C5.
For this example, an identical contour is applied to a whole tone scale (a scale consisting only of whole steps).