How To Describe Melody

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Do you want to teach your students about melody but you’re struggling to clearly describe it?

Are you looking for some language to share with your students to help them better understand melody? 

Musical concepts are complicated, but stripping the definition down to what your students better understand is one important piece of teaching music. So you need to know how to describe melody. 

Melody is a group of pitches and rhythms which make up the main “tune” of a song or piece. Melody can be built in isolation or may contain thematic and motivic elements in relation to other parts of the song or piece. The melody is one of the main indicators as to the form of a song or piece. 

Look ahead for examples of the specific language to use with your students. 

What Is A Simple Definition Of Melody?

Simplest definition of melody: 

“Melody is another word for the song’s ‘tune’.” 

A little more involved: 

“Melody is what happens when you combine rhythm and pitch to create the part of the song or piece you want to sing.” 

These are basic definitions of melody I use with my younger students (and adults with little musical background). If forced to describe melody in one sentence, this definition holds up well. 

Students also find it helpful to use analogies. This is one analogy I love to use in relation to melody.

Note: This analogy only works well with students who have gone far enough in their general education to understand the ideas of sentences. 

When you speak or when you write, the sentence is the message you’re trying to get across. In music, this is the melody. 

But just like a sentence is made up of different parts, the melody is made from different parts as well.  

A sentence contains individual words strung together. A melody has rhythms strung together. 

But you can’t just use random words in a sentence; each word has a special purpose and you several types of these words in the correct order for the sentence to make sense. 

At the basics, you need a subject and verb along with any modifiers or describing words. “Sally ran fast.” 

For melody, the rhythms need another aspect to push them into melody, and this is pitch. 

Words + Purpose = Sentence.

Rhythm + Pitch = Melody.

How Do You Describe Melody In A Song? 

In relation to songs or pieces, melody is a sequence of pitch and rhythm notes we hear a single idea or series of ideas. 

The melody is often intended to be at the forefront of the piece (this is especially true with pop songs). 

Related Readings: Pop Songs In Solfege; Pop Songs With Steady Beat

The melodies are often, but not always, the key musical ideas the composer works with. These sequences of notes are the ones that get stuck in your ear. 

Some music teachers describe the melody as the part you sing or hum. Melody is typically the most easily remembered part of a song or piece. 

For a great way to teach melody to elementary students, I recommend checking out the Kodaly Method I by Lois Choksy.

It’s one of the top books for Kodaly-inspired teaching and filled with thought-provoking activities.

Check it out at the link above (Affiliate link there; you know the deal: Small commission for us at no extra cost to you).

How Is Melody Used In Music? 

The uses for melody largely depend on the style of music being written or performed. In general, the melody (or melodies) form the basis for the pieces or songs and the rest of the music fits around and augments the piece. 

In popular music (i.e. music typically heard on the radio), the melody is all-important. All the accompanying music backs up the melody, often a singer, except during solos, bridges, or breakdowns of the song. 

For classical music, the use varies greatly. 

In general, earlier pieces of classical music would build their pieces around the melody and other similar thematic material. 

In some types of pieces, the melody could be expanding on to the point it’s almost unrecognizable. 

Modern styles of music, such as atonal music, actually do their best to remove a concept of “melody” as much as possible. 

Need some help with music lessons and supplemental resources? Check out Teaching Children Music for cool resources to save yourself some time and mental effort.

What Are The Characteristics Of Melody?

Melody is built from other different elements of music. At its core, melody is built from pitch and rhythm, and beat. 

Beat – The underlying pulse or heart of music that unifies the music. This pulse may be steady or unsteady, but it’s usually steady with fluctuations at dramatic moments. 

Rhythm – Rhythm is the duration of sound (long and short) as they exist in relation to the beat. 

Pitch – Pitch is how high or low a sound is. 

When these are combined, a melody is created. 

Melody may also be described using some following words (with brief definitions): 

  • Contour* (shape of the melody)
  • Range (the highest and lowest notes)
  • Scale (the pitches chosen if they belong to a scale set such as major or minor)
  • Style (light, bouncy, dark, heavy, smooth, etc)
  • Direction/phrasing (where is the climax of the melody?)
  • Form** (like a whole piece, melody can be made of different sections)

*See more about contour below. 

**Related Readings: Songs with ABA Form; Song with AB Form

Check out this video for about how music is related to texture and harmony. 

What Is Melodic Contour?

Melodic contour is the shape of the melody. It’s often represented by the shape the notes of the melody make. 

For example, the song, Somewhere Over The Rainbow (Judy Garland version), has a distinctive melody show by a large octave leap followed by a general descending line. 

This contour could be drawn to a shape showing from the bottom of the paper with a line straight towards the top with a smooth arc down again. 

Contour is important to teach to students or a few reasons: 

  • This is the step before diving into specific pitches with younger students
  • Contour informs phrasing and dynamics in performance 
  • Contour may be an example of text painting 

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed reading about how to describe melody. This musical concept is one of the key elements of music, and now you have a few different ways you may want to use to define it.

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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