What Is Melody?

You have studied so many elements of music in this book, and yet you have never asked this simple question: What is a melody? Certainly, melody is a very important aspect of music! You have learned about scales, which can lead to melodies, but never what a melody is.

Well, there is a good reason for not broaching this question—it's really hard to answer. At its simplest, a melody is the tune of a song. Sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself. You just sang the melody. That was easy because that particular song is practically all melody. What does all melody mean? Well, in the case of “Happy Birthday,” while there may be some chords behind it, they're not necessary; the tune stands on its own with or without chords. The melody is the memorable part, not the chord progression. Now, for some contrast, listen to a Beethoven symphony and try to sing the melody. That's going to be harder because a symphony is not as clear-cut! There are multiple melodies going on at once. So, why go to all this trouble? The relationship between melody and harmony is crucial to the study of music theory. No matter how well you understand scales and chords, if you don't understand how they relate to one another, your knowledge will be incomplete.

Supportive Chords

Let's use a simple analogy to explore the relationship between melody and harmony. Chords are like ladders, supporting melodies. At its simplest, a single melodic tone can be harmonized with a chord as long as the chord has the melodic tone in it.

So, if you are in the key of C major, you have a melody note C, and you want to figure out what chord would work with that note, look to the key of C major and its harmonized chords. Then select a chord that had the note C in it. Now you have the three choices shown in FIGURE 11.1.

FIGURE 11.1 Harmony Choices

The chord you choose depends upon a few variables. You could listen to each chord and select the one you want. However, you're dealing with one moment in time, and you'd probably want to see the context that this note occurs in throughout the piece, taking into account chords that precede and follow it.

At the most basic level, a single note is supported by a chord that shares the same note. Chapter 12 will expand on this fact. If you've ever wondered why “insert any chord here” is being used at any moment, look to the melody; it always will be related in some way.

When harmonizing single notes, remember that the chord you choose will contain the melody note as either its root, third, or fifth. If you stick only with simple triads, you will always have three choices. Add a seventh chord and you have four choices for chords. It's nice to have choices.

Point for Point

As you start this process, learn how to harmonize a scale point for point, meaning that each note of the scale gets its own chord. Each melody note has at least three choices for chords, which leads to a staggering number of choices. Rather than list them all, here is an example (see figure 11.2) that will work well here. Instead of choosing random chords, the chord ladder was the starting point, and the rest of the chords were selected by ear.

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FIGURE 11.2 Harmonizing a Scale Point to Point

This illustration gives you an idea of how to choose chords for melodic tones—and dig that groovy flute playing the melody on the CD.

Does every melody note get its own chord? Not always. Remember the earlier example of “Amazing Grace.” Here it is again in FIGURE 11.3.

FIGURE 11.3 “Amazing Grace”

The harmonic rhythm (the pace at which the chords appear and change) has been slowed down considerably. The truth is that not every note in a melody needs to be harmonized with a chord of its very own—that would definitely be overkill.

Look at the sheet music to any pop song you like. You will see that 99.9 percent of the time, chords support several melody notes. There is almost never a new chord for each melody note unless the melody is very, very slow—at which point the harmony is keeping the song from sounding like a dirge.

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