Western Art Music places equal emphasis on both the melodic flow of each voice or part, also called a line, and on the harmonic flow and function of all of the voices put together. This forms a kind of grid, where each note functions in both ways simultaneously. This makes this type of music interesting to listen to, but also makes it difficult to compose. Whether composing contemporary music, listening to a Beethoven symphony or playing Bass Guitar in a Ska band, by understanding how music functions both horizontally (line) and vertically (harmony), one can better appreciate and create music of nearly all styles.
If each line of music is interesting and has a smooth flow, chances are that the whole work will be also. So what are some of the traits of a "good melody"? Although this varies from style to style, by studying the refined principles of common practice melodies, an understanding of the principles that govern them can be applied to other styles as well.
A good melody, like a good house, has a solid basic framework. This is then embellished and refined to create more interest. When creating a melody, composers often start with a rhythmically simple line according to the following guidelines, then add the embellishments later. A full understanding of common practice melodic guidelines is essential for writing and understanding these melodies.
1) Rhythm - keep it simple to start with. A good guideline is one note per beat or pulse.
2) Contour - this is the shape of the line. Usually, there is only one highest or lowest note, called the peak. If the peak note is repeated, it looses it's effect, so it is important to have only one peak to your contour. Where should the peak occur? Although there is an infinite number of variations, there are several basic contours that melodic lines generally follow:
a) Arch - the most popular contour. Begins lower, works its way up to a high point between around or just after the midpoint of the melody, then falls back to a lower ending note. All of the following are arch contour melodies:
An Inverted Arch contour simply flips this shape upside-down, with the lowest peak occurring only once.
b) Ramp - Melodies often save the high or low peak for the last note, for a more climactic ending. An ascending ramp contour begins at or near the lowest not, and gradually and continually works it's way up to the highest peak. a descending ramp contour reverses this, beginning with the higher point, and ending with the lowest.
ascending ramp contour
descending ramp contour
Remember, these are simplifications. Melodic lines may briefly zig-zag around these shapes, and sometimes may combine both. This familiar melody has both arch contours and descending ramps:
It is important to note, however, that lines without a contour often sound dull and seem to just "noodle around" on a few notes. Compare the above melodies to the following, and see which is the more interesting:
3) A Smooth Connected Line - Our ear more easily hears a series of notes as belonging together when they proceed smoothly and without leaps of larger intervals. The following are the main guidelines used in common practice melodic lines:
4) resolve tendency tones -
Note the examples of the above guidelines in the following two melodies -- the first follows them, and the second does not.
Melody which follows guidelines:
Melody that does not follow guidelines:
When composing a melody to fit a harmonic progression, you may wish to follow these simple steps:
In Section 16: Non-Chord Tones, methods of embellishing this melody will be examined. Section 17: Basic Form and Analysis, use of patterns called motives will be discussed. But for now, try to create more simple, yet attractive sounding melodies. Remember: an ugly melody with lots of embellishments is usually still an ugly melody!
The process of adding chords to a pre-existing melody is similar to the above process for composing a melody to fit a harmonic progression. The following is a simple process to compose a harmonic progression to fit a given melody.