Back To CourseMusic 101: Intro to Music
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Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.
Think of your favorite song. Chances are, you're thinking of the singer's part or possibly a memorable guitar riff. In each of these cases, we could say that you are thinking of the melody. Melody can be defined as a memorable series of pitches. In a non-formal setting, we can just say it's the tune of the song. If you think of the song 'Mary Had A Little Lamb,' you are probably thinking of the melody and not the accompanying harmonic notes that could go along with it. If you sing the song 'Happy Birthday' at a party, you are most likely singing the melody. This is generally true for many styles of music, whether it's a classical tune, a reggae song, or an electronic dance track.
In general, the melody serves as a main focus of the song and acts as a means of communication from the composer to his or her audience. Surprisingly, a lot can be said with just melody. Emotions are often implied through melodic contour. Melodic contour is the shape of the melody.
If you look at a written melody, you can see a melody rising and falling. This rising and falling action gives the melody shape and personality. Melodic contour is the reason why you can tell the difference between two melodies, even from memory. For example, what would it look like if you were to draw the contour of 'Frere Jacques' versus the contour of the melody from 'Joy To The World?'
If we dig a little deeper, we can see how melodic contour is formed. Within a melody, we can see notes that seem to step from one note to another because they are close together. This is called conjunct motion. On the other hand, if a melody has notes that leap from one note to another, like this, then it is called disjunct motion.
You can think of conjunct and disjunct motion like going up a set of stairs. If you step up each stair, your stride is relatively short because each stair is right next to the following one. If you're in a hurry or just have a little more spring in your step, you might leap over some stairs as you scurry.
A real-life example of conjunct motion can be heard in Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy.' A real-life example of disjunct motion can be heard in 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Both conjunct and disjunct motion are important in melody, and most melodies are actually a mixture of conjunct and disjunct motion. Listen to this clip of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major (video at 03:22). Can you tell which parts are conjunct and which are disjunct? The places where notes are jumping up and down the staff are disjunct, and the places where notes are stepping up and down from space to line or line to space are conjunct.
Melodies are substantial enough to be music on their own, but they often sound empty and lonesome without some accompaniment. Thus, many composers add supporting notes called harmony. There are many types of harmony that can be added, but in general, harmony can be defined as notes that sound simultaneously. Harmony acts as notes that support a melody.
Harmony often adds a framework or context for the melody, like a setting in a story. Think back to 'Mary Had A Little Lamb.' We can harmonize the melody by adding accompanying notes. We can do this by adding a countermelody or by adding chords.
A countermelody is a secondary melody that is made to accompany the primary melody. The countermelody can be higher- or lower-pitched than the primary melody. Sometimes they are played with simultaneous rhythms.
With 'Mary Had A Little Lamb,' a countermelody might sound like this (video at 04:56). Handel's 'Hornpipe' is a famous example of this type of countermelody. Other times, there is a sort of 'conversation' that happens between the melody and the countermelody. Bach was a master of this, as you can hear in his Fugue in G minor (video at 05:32).
A very famous example that contains both styles of countermelody is Pachelbel's Canon in D. In the beginning, we hear the melodies moving together (video at 05:55), and as the song develops, the instruments begin to take on their own parts to create a beautiful collection of countermelodies.
Harmony can also be made with chords. Chords are one of the most common forms of harmony. A chord is when two or more notes are played at a time. Chords look like notes stacked on top of one another, like this. Chords can be played by instruments like piano or guitar or by combined instruments, like a group of trumpets or a group with different instruments like a trombone, a flute, and a violin, for instance.
There are many real-life examples of chords in various genres of music. A solo artist might sing a melody and play supporting chords on guitar. Orchestras tend to have more mixed instrument chords with various instruments playing different notes to create a chord together. A chordal accompaniment for 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' might sound like this. (beginning in the video at 07:34) An orchestral example of chords with melody can be heard in Mussorgsky's 'Pictures At An Exhibition.'
It's important to note that not all harmony is meant to sound 'pretty.' This type of harmony is called dissonant. Dissonance is often heard as either unpleasant, tense, or unstable. This type of harmony is meant to drive emotion in music, and it typically resolves to a more stable, or consonant, chord. Consonant chords are considered pleasant or stable. Bach's Toccata and Fugue provides a classic example of this. The interplay of consonant and dissonant harmonies is part of what makes music engaging for listeners.
Melody and harmony are the bread and butter of music. The melody, or tune, of the song provides a memorable series of pitches that catches the listener's ear. The melody can move in conjunct motion, where the notes move stepwise, and in disjunct motion, where the notes leap up and down the staff.
Simultaneously sounding notes called harmony bring support and context to the melody. Harmony can be heard as countermelody, where there is interplay between two melodies that create harmony, or as chords, which are made from multiple notes played at the same time. Lastly, consonant and dissonant harmonies bring dramatic tension and release.
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Back To CourseMusic 101: Intro to Music
12 chapters | 101 lessons