What is a ‘melody?’ How are ‘melody’ and ‘harmony’ different? What kinds of harmonies are used in classical and current popular styles of music? Find out the basics of melody and harmony in this lesson.
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.
Melodic Function and Contour
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?’
Conjunct and Disjunct Movement
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.
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