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Melodic Contour: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 What Is Melodic Contour?
  • 1:17 The Four Types of…
  • 2:10 Using and Analyzing Contour
  • 3:39 Examples
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson teaches you about melodic contour, which helps musicians understand how melodies rise and fall. Learn about the four types of melodic motion, and analyze the contours of some famous melodies to find out what makes them so special.

What Is Melodic Contour?

Music is made up of several different elements, but one that we all recognize is melody. Melody refers to a musical idea built of individual, consecutive pitches. You also might think of it as a single musical line. Melody is distinct from harmony, in that a melody is heard as single notes, one right after the other, while harmony features notes sounding simultaneously. Melodies can be built of as few as two notes and they often stretch for hundreds of notes.

There are millions of different possible melodies. Chances are, you know a few hundred that you could hum or whistle right now. Think of, for example, your favorite nursery rhyme or your country's national anthem.

These melodies all take material from the same twelve-note chromatic scale, so how can they be so different, and how do we as listeners tell them apart? One way is through knowing each melody's contour. Contour refers to the sequence of motions between notes of a melody. In other words, contour is a measurement of how a melody moves between individual notes. All melodies have contour and it's one of the properties that's most useful for identifying and cataloguing melodies.

The Four Types of Melodic Motion

Music theorists examine a melody's contour by looking at the motion between individual notes. When one note moves to another, it can either move up or down, and it can either move by step to an adjacent note or by leap to a note farther away. There are four possible combinations of these variables, and so there are four basic types of melodic motion. A melody can move up by step, down by step, up by leap, or down by leap.

The exact combination of these four motions that a melody possesses gives it its contour. We can visualize the contour as a long, squiggly line. The line gives us information about the melody's balance between up, down, step, and leap. More detailed information about contour can include the exact intervals of each motion, which replaces the simple step/leap understanding.

Using and Analyzing Contour

Understanding melodies by their contour can be useful because reproducing the contour will reproduce the melody, even in different keys. Take, for example, the tune 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.' Understanding its individual notes as C, C, G, G, A, A, G enables you to play the melody in C Major. However, examine the contour: up a fifth, up a step, down a step. Using this information, we can reproduce the melody in any key. All we need is to choose a starting note and reproduce the contour.

Understanding contour also helps us understand what makes melodies memorable and expressive, which can be helpful for all musicians. To begin, good melodies tend to have diverse contours; that is, they tend to make balanced use of all different types of melodic motion. Good melodies will also often feature opposite pairs of motion. In other words, a melodic motion that's followed by a motion which, in whole or in part, features its opposite.

So, if a melodic line begins by moving up a leap, the composer can make it expressive and memorable by moving down (the opposite of up) or by step (the opposite of the leap), or both.

Examples

Let's look at the contour of a great melody and see how it affects our perception of the music. We'll begin with this melody by John Williams, from the sci-fi classic Star Wars, known as 'Leia's Theme.'

Take a moment and examine this melody. There are a few things about its contour that we might notice right away. First of all, it's very wide. The range of the melody from its highest note to its lowest notes spans over an octave. This gives the composer lots of room for expressive ideas. Second, Williams makes use of large leaps, giving the music a longing, emotional quality.

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