What is Melody, Really?

Matthew Gearhart, Opinions Editor

The word Melody derives from the late Latin word Melodia, which means “a pleasant song.” Melody is quite simple in one way, but quite complex in another. Anyone can identify a melody, but to fully understand what melody really is, is quite the challenge. Melody is the mother of music, it guides it in its own direction then lets it breathe. It captures us as people as we can’t help but hum along, it sticks to our brain and never lets go. To try and comprehend melody we must understand what melody is, or at least how we as humans define it. As well as grasp the understanding of what melody can do, or what you can do with melody. 

The article “What is Melody?” by Masterclass, defines melody as “a collection of musical tones that are grouped together as a single entity.” Melody is a sequence of these tones. You can divide melody into two concepts, Pitch and Duration. Pitch (or note) is the individual audio vibrations that distinguish a D to an E flat. Every individual melody is made up of a combination of these pitches. Duration is the span of time in between each pitch. A melody is defined by the time and rhythm of each pitch, and the order in which these pitches are arranged. In most melodies, notes follow a pattern throughout the song, creating a memorable sequence. This pattern might mean the repetition of one particular note, or a specific descending or ascending sequence. The next question that might arise is where do these notes come from. The answer is that melodies are built upon musical scales. Musical scales are a fixed order of particular notes that follow a certain pattern of semitones and tones. Different scales give us different ranges of sound.  The most well-known scales in western music is the Major and Minor scales. The major scale is a combination of particular notes that span semitones and tones that create a bright sound that can often be described as happy, and light. The minor scale is a combination that creates a darker soundscape, it’s the same as the major scale but with a flattened third note. It creates a range of sound that is often associated with sadness and melancholy. There are musical scales that are brighter than the major scale, and darker than the minor scale. There is even a key right in the middle, called the Mixolydian scale. Scales are also defined by their key. A key is the particular set of notes that the melody belongs to. So if a musician wanted to create a melody, they would typically need to know which key they’re in, and what kind of scale they’re going to use. This allows them to freely create. 

One might confuse melody with harmony. This is very understandable considering melody and harmony have a complex relationship. Harmony is when multiple notes are stacked upon each other, these notes should complement each other to create a sonically pleasing sound, better known as a chord. The right harmony can be played at the same time as a melody, it can accent the melody or guide it in a totally different direction. This can cause you to hear the melody in a different way. A song is made up of several melodies. It’s usually one flowing composition made up of a bass melody, vocal melody, lead instrumental melody and a chord progression. In a typical song, all of these melodies harmonize together to create one coherent sound. Every one of these parts in the song are important, but what defines the song is usually the main melody. This is usually the main vocals in either the verse or the chorus of a song. The main melody is the key to giving the song that catchiness that everyone is always after. 

When a song is being written, the melody is often written according to the chord progression. It helps when the chord progression starts in a specific base note, then derives from that note creating tension, but then followed with a chord that either breaks that tension and brings us back home to the base note, or moves us into an entirely different direction.  And if a song is good, typically the verse melody will build into the chorus melody creating the same tension and release format. 

 When discussing what a melody in a song would typically do, the words “usually” and “typically” spanned this entire article. Because many musicians over the years have proven that melodies can bend and mold in so many different ways. And that the power of melody is beyond any explanation. Melody can touch the bottom of our soul, and cause us to tear up even if it is unwanted. It’s not only undefinable, it’s boundaryless.