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How to Describe Melody - What is Melody - Melody in Music

This author has been an educator, conductor, and trombonist for the past 40 years. His experience qualifies him as an expert in this field.

How to Describe Melody - What is Melody - Melody in Music

How to Describe Melody - What is Melody - Melody in Music? Many people when listening to a piece of music refer to (what is known as) the Melody as the - “Tune”. Some even refer to it as the - “Song”. To better understand why melody is probably the most important element in “Music”, we must first have a clear definition of the word. Before we do that though let us back up just a bit and talk about the definition of the word “Music”.

Many scholars and musicologists along with composers and the like have over the years given their definitions of the word “Music”. Some of these definitions are lengthy and complicated at best. Let’s keep this very simple for what we are doing here. “Music is organized Sounds and Silences”. I’ve been using this definition of simplicity for 50 years while teaching young people because it helps to understand the five basic elements of music:

  • Melody
  • Rhythm
  • Harmony
  • Form
  • Timbre

If we grasp this concept of the word “Music” as being organized sounds and silences, then it will be easy to understand the explanation or definition of the word “Melody”. At this point I’m going to give three definitions of the word Melody from various sources and see which one you find to be the simplest and most logical.

  1. It is a linear succession of musical tones that the listener perceives as a single entity. It is a combination of pitch and rhythm.
  2. It is a rhythmic succession of single pitches producing a musical phrase or idea.
  3. It is a series of notes (pitches) that move in time, one after another.

Each of these definitions is correct. The first definition comes from Wikipedia. The second comes from the Webster dictionary. The third one comes from legendary conductor, composer and educator Leonard Bernstein.

During the 1960's, Mr. Bernstein presented on television, the “Young People’s Concerts”. A series featuring him and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra where he would spend a great deal of time teaching about the elements of music and using this great orchestra to illustrate his examples to the audience. It was a tremendous series and probably one of the reasons why I pursued music as a career.

Mr. Bernstein’s definition of the word Melody is precise and not confusing. The only thing that I would add to his definition would be the word “organized”. So, the definition that we will use for Melody here will be as follows: Melody is a series of organized notes (pitches) that move-in time, one after another.

Mr. Bernstein also referred to this most important element of music as the “main course” to a piece of music, or the “meat and potatoes“ of a musical composition. And he couldn’t have said it better.

Leonard Bernstein

Great composer! Even better conductor!

Great composer! Even better conductor!

Characteristics of Melody

There are certain words that we use to fully understand Melody. These are called the “Characteristics of Melody”.

  • Pitch - a certain note with an assigned name.
  • Interval - the distance or space between two pitches or notes.
  • Shape - describes how the notation looks and sounds. Does it have larger leaps or smaller.
  • Phrase - as in language, a block of text that is divided by sentence phrases, a melody may be divided into smaller units called a phrase.
  • Direction - the pitch moves vertically while duration moves horizontally.

Listening Exercises

Each of these articles will include listening exercises to develop specific skills in listening to music. As you go through them you may want to go back and listen again at another time. Listening more than once to a piece of music is a great way to develop your ear especially as the exercises get more involved.

Listening to a single melody

Below, is a video example of a single melody titled “Emanuelle". It is being performed by a very famous trumpet soloist - Allen Vizzutti. As you listen to the example, let’s focus on the items below as to what to listen for:

  1. Listen for the length – is it long or short?
  2. Is the melody simple or complex?
  3. Is it slow or fast? We
  4. Does it have shape?
Scroll to Continue

Listening Exercise #2 - America the Beautiful

This next listening example features one of the prettiest and most patriotic melodies that this country owns - America the Beautiful, written by Samuel Ward. This particular arrangement was written by Carmen Dragon, conductor, composer. His treatment for the Symphonic Band, or Orchestra is probably the most famous and widely performed arrangement of this melody. This performance is by the Santa Monica High School Band, and, if I might say, what a most impressive performance!

This piece begins with an eight measure introduction followed by the melody featuring the clarinet section in the lower register of that instrument. As you listen to this example try and focus on just the melody. Very distinctive sound accompanied by block chordal harmony.

After the first time through the melody there is a short transition which includes what we call in music as a “modulation“. Mr. Dragon is moving the listener to another "key" or "tonal center" which sets up the melody again for a second playing by the clarinets and adds the flute section with them as well for a contrast in “timbre” or "tone color". The modulation serves as a device to get a fresh look at this melody one more time. Listen to how the melody doesn’t change but does have some interesting harmonies and devices accompanying it.

The last part of this concludes with the brass section coming in with a “heroic fanfare“ type ending bringing this arrangement to a conclusion.


America The Beautiful arr. Carmen Dragon

Listening Exercise #3 - John Williams

Probably the most famous and respected film score composers today is John Williams and unless you are from another planet or live under a rock, you have probably seen one of the films that Mr. Williams wrote the music for.

The reason for me to use this John Williams Medley is simple. First, it will be very recognizable. Second, I wish you to relax while listening to this medley of music written by John Williams.

  • With a pad of paper write down each melody that you hear when it is played.
  • What is the medium for performance?
  • Listen for the characteristics of melody as they are changing.

I mention again the importance of disciplining yourself to listening with good equipment or at least a good set of stereo headphones. Your ears, brain and soul will thank you. I provided a link for good headphones below.


John Williams


John Williams Medley

Melody Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What was the “medium for performance” for the America the Beautiful example
    • Clarinet Choir
    • Santa Monica High School Band
    • London Symphony Orchestra
    • University of North Texas Jazz Ensemble
  2. In music, the word “modulation“ means……
    • To change from one seat to another in the orchestra.
    • Make sure you brought your instrument to the concert.
    • A device the composer/arranger uses to change key
    • To change one’s mind before going to the concert .
  3. The definition of music is...
    • Sounds and notes
    • The tune
    • Sounds and silences
    • Organized sounds and silences
  4. What are the letters of the musical alphabet?
    • A B C D E F G H
    • A B C D E F G
    • C D E F G H A
    • M U S I C

Answer Key

  1. Santa Monica High School Band
  2. A device the composer/arranger uses to change key
  3. Organized sounds and silences
  4. A B C D E F G

© 2017 Reginald Thomas

Feel free to comment on this article.

Reginald Thomas (author) from Connecticut on August 25, 2018:

Hello Frances

Thank you for reading the article. It is most important for people to understand the basic elements of music in order to appreciate better what they are listening to.

Frances Metcalfe from The Limousin, France on August 25, 2018:

Hello Reginald. A good article for beginners who want to understand how to listen to any music. When I was taking my O and A level music way back in the later '70s in the UK, I'd write in pencil in the margin just those catagories, Form, Melody, Harmony, Rhythm and Instrumentation, and scribbled by brainstorming ideas down pertaining to the question then rubbed them out before submission. Always worked well!

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