You might not realize it, but chances are pretty good that a melody is running through your mind right now. It may be something that you heard yesterday on the radio, it might be music that you downloaded from the Internet, it might be a catchy jingle from a television ad, or it might even be something that you composed yourself. As soon as you start humming, singing, or whistling, you are performing a melody. Melodies do more than just pass through our minds, though — they affect our entire bodies, causing us to tap our toes or move and dance without consciously thinking about it.
Technically speaking, melody is a group of notes that are played one at a time to a specific rhythm. These notes form a unit that we can recognize and remember. The melody is the part of the music that stands out as most important. It’s what sticks in our minds once the music is over.
A melody is the musical equivalent of a sentence — it expresses a complete idea and it can be broken down into phrases. Sometimes these phrases sound like musical versions of questions with answers. The beginning of the melody may stop at a point without really sounding like it is finished. This phrase may sound like a question, or in musical terms an antecedent. The phrase that answers that question is called the consequent. The point of rest at the end of a phrase is called the cadence.
The smallest units of a melody are its notes or pitches. Pitch is the highness or lowness of a sound and its scientific term is frequency. Whenever we hear a sound we actually perceive vibrations of airwaves. Those airwaves can be measured in vibrations per second that we call frequency — the faster the vibrations, the higher the pitch. Most humans can hear a range of 20 vibrations per second to 20,000 vibrations per second.
Every melody has a tonality. The tonality is like a gravitational force in music. It draws our ears to one central pitch or tonic. Phrases that do not end on the tonic are the questions (antecedent), and they are answered by the phrases that end on tonic (consequent). Think of the melody to Mary Had a Little Lamb. With the words “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb,” we end the antecedent phrase. On the last “lamb” does it sound like the melody is complete? No, it doesn’t. It is answered by “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow.” With the pitch for “snow” we end on tonic and complete the melody with its consequent phrase. This song is very simple and it is easy to hear each phrase. Although most melodies are more complicated than this one, they are usually constructed in a similar manner.
Each of the pitches of a melody has a specific length or duration. All of the durations in the melody create its rhythm. If the pitches did not have any set rhythm then the melody would consist of a bunch of notes that don’t make much sense.
Melodies can be described in a few ways. The range refers to how high or low the pitches of the melody go. The contour of a melody is its shape and it describes the direction of the phrases. Melodies can also be analyzed by the distance between pitches. If the pitches are connected by step then they are close to one another. If they move by skip then there is some slight distance between them. And, if they move by leap then there is a large distance between the pitches.
For example, Mary Had a Little Lamb has a relatively narrow range. It does not go very high or low. Also, it moves almost exclusively by step. The song Happy Birthday has a wider range and moves by step and leap. Sing the melody and think about the distance between notes. “Happy birthday (leap) to you, happy birthday (bigger leap) to you, happy (really big leap) birthday dear person, (another big leap) happy birthday to you.”