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2.9 Melodic Features

7 min readjanuary 3, 2023

Mickey Hansen

Mickey Hansen


AP Music Theory 🎶

72 resources
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Melody is the intersection of pitch and rhythm. A melody is created when a succession of pitches are played over a certain amount of time, expressing a musical statement. Often they are derived from scales and modes, and are organized into patterns that create musical phrasing and motives.
In music, a phrase is a group of musical measures that forms a complete musical idea. A phrase typically consists of a series of notes that are played or sung in a specific order, and has a beginning, middle, and end.
Musical phrases are an important element of music, as they provide structure and organization to a piece of music. They can be thought of as the "building blocks" of a piece of music, and help to create a sense of coherence and unity.
Musical phrasing refers to the way that a musician shapes and interprets the melody and rhythm of a piece of music. It is the way that a musician gives expression and meaning to the music, and can involve a wide range of techniques, such as dynamics, tempo, and articulation. The phrasing often depends on the melody and patterns within the melody. 
Melodies often have certain technical features, including contour, conjunct and disjunct, register, and range.
Melodic contour refers to the shape or direction of a melody. It describes the overall movement of the pitch of the notes in a melody, and can be thought of as the "ups and downs" of the melody.
A melody with a strong sense of contour is often more memorable and satisfying to listen to, as it provides a sense of direction and purpose. A melody with a weak or unclear contour may be less interesting or less effective at conveying emotion or meaning.
There are many different types of melodic contour that can be used in music. Some common examples include:
  • Rising: A melody that moves upward in pitch.
  • Falling: A melody that moves downward in pitch.
  • Arching: A melody that begins and ends on a high or low pitch, with the pitches in the middle of the melody rising or falling.
  • Leaping: A melody that makes large jumps in pitch, either upward or downward.
  • Stepwise: A melody that moves in small steps, either upward or downward.
Melodic contour can be used to create different moods and emotions in music. For example, a rising melody can convey a sense of hope or excitement, while a falling melody may convey sadness or melancholy.
When writing melodies, we prefer not to have too many leaps in the melody. A leap is defined as skipping over 2 or more notes, whereas a skip is defined as skipping over  one note in the diatonic scale. For example, a leap would be from F to Bb, and a skip would be from F to A. A step would be from F to G. When writing melodies, we should use mostly steps and skips. 
The stepwise movement of pitches in a melody is known as conjunct motion. This creates a sense of continuity and flow in the melody.
If we’re only moving in steps, though, we lose interest in the piece. We want to add a few skips and leaps, too. For this, we have disjunct motion
Disjunct motion is a type of melodic movement in which the pitches of the notes move in a more separated or disconnected manner. It is characterized by larger intervals between the notes, such as leaps of a third or fourth, and creates a sense of contrast and variety in the melody.
Both disjunct and conjunct motion can be used effectively in music, depending on the desired effect. Disjunct motion can add interest and variety to a melody, while conjunct motion can create a sense of flow and continuity.
Disjunct motion can be used to create a sense of drama or tension in a melody, and is often found in music that is more energetic or virtuosic. On the other hand, conjunct motion is often used in melodies that are more lyrical or expressive, as it creates a sense of smoothness and continuity.
The register of a melody refers to how high or low the pitch of the melody is. The choice of melodic register can have a significant impact on the character and expressiveness of a melody. For example, if a melody is very high, it might be much more dramatic, and if a melody has a lower register, it might be more subtle. 
But these are really broad generalizations. If both the harmony and the melody are very high, they might be interpreted as more subtle, and if both the harmony and the melody are very low, they might be interpreted as either very dramatic or very mysterious. It depends on the dynamics and the contexts as well. 
Another way to describe melody is musical range. Range refers to the total span of notes in the melody. A melody may span a wide range of pitches, or it may be limited to a narrow range. For example, a melody that spans a wide range of pitches may be more dramatic or virtuosic, while a melody that is limited to a narrow range may be more intimate or introspective.
In vocal music, we might have syllabic music, which is one note to one syllable, or we might have melismatic music, which gives many notes to one syllable. These melismatic melodies often have ornamentations or runs within the syllables. 
Syllabic music is often used for texts that are straightforward and declarative, as it creates a sense of clarity and simplicity. Melismatic music, on the other hand, is often used for texts that are more emotional or expressive, as it allows for greater flexibility and nuance in the melody. 

Motivic Analysis 

Earlier, we noted that melodies are organized into patterns like phrases and motives. A phrase is like a musical sentence: a complete musical idea. An entire piece of music can be divided up into phrases, although sometimes, we might not be completely sure where a phrase begins and where one ends. 
If a phrase is a complete musical sentence, a motive is just one musical word. A musical motive is a short melodic or rhythmic idea that forms the basis of a musical composition. It is similar to a theme or a subject in that it is repeated or varied throughout a piece of music. A motive can be as simple as a single note or as complex as a series of chords. It is an important element of music because it helps to give a piece of music coherence and unity, and it can also help to convey a particular mood or emotion.
Here are a few well-known examples of musical motives:
  1. The "five-note" motive from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: This motive consists of four short notes followed by a longer note, and it is repeated throughout the symphony in various forms.
  2. The "da-da-da-DUM" motive from Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 5": This motive consists of three short notes followed by a longer note, and it is also repeated throughout the symphony in various forms.
  3. The "scherzo" motive from Mozart's Symphony No. 40: This motive consists of a series of fast, playful chords that are repeated throughout the scherzo movement of the symphony.
Musical motives can be both melodic or harmonic, meaning that you can have a motive that is just a melody, or you can have a motive that is a chord progression. Motives can also be defined by just their rhythmic patterns, or they can be defined by the pattern of pitches. Sometimes, they will be defined by both. 
Throughout a piece of music, the composer can alter the motive, extend the motive, or maybe even use just a short fragment of the motive. The motive might only be present for one section of the piece, or it might be there throughout. The point is that the motive will be repeated to some extent throughout the piece of music. A piece may have multiple motives, or maybe one very prominent motive and a few secondary ones. 
In addition to serving as the basis for a musical composition, motives can also be used to connect different sections of a piece of music, or to provide contrast and variety within a piece. They can be developed and expanded upon through techniques such as repetition, variation, inversion, and fragmentation, and they can be combined with other motives or themes to create even more complex musical structures.
Musical motives can be used to convey a variety of emotions and moods, depending on how they are developed and used within the music. For example, a motive that is repeated in a fast and energetic manner might convey excitement or joy, while a slower, more contemplative motive might convey a sense of melancholy or introspection.
🦜 Polly wants a progress tracker: try to identify the motives in Beethoven’s Sonata No 17 in d minor. How many can you find? What kind of melodic motion and contour do they have? 
Browse Study Guides By Unit
🎵Unit 1 – Music Fundamentals I (Pitch, Major Scales and Key Signatures, Rhythm, Meter, and Expressive Elements)
🎶Unit 2 – Music Fundamentals II (Minor Scales and Key Signatures, Melody, Timbre, and Texture)
🎻Unit 3 – Music Fundamentals III (Triads and Seventh Chords)
🎹Unit 4 – Harmony and Voice Leading I (Chord Function, Cadence, and Phrase)
🎸Unit 5: Harmony and Voice Leading II: Chord Progressions and Predominant Function
🎤Unit 7 – Harmony and Voice Leading IV (Secondary Function)
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