Musical Ups and Downs–Why is Contour Important?

Sometimes, when a person has been studying and practicing something for a long time, acquiring a high level of expertise in it, it becomes easy to overlook the simpler aspects of the discipline—those concepts that one learned when first being introduced to the discipline, and then forgotten once more advanced levels were reached. In music, i think one of those things is melodic contour. I begin my pre-kindergarten classes with having the children make sliding sounds from various cues such as shapes made of yarn on the floor, or drawn on cards shown to them one at a time. The children learn to trace the forms in the air with their fingers and sing the contour. But once the children get older, and learn to read pitches from a music staff, it seems contour is no longer needed, because now they can read specific pitches. The contour is there, but not needed for reading music, so it is forgotten. But is it?

When people listen to music, they usually don’t attend to individual notes, but instead to sequences of notes that relate to each other harmonically, metrically, rhythmically, and by closeness of pitch. Bregman, in his book Auditory Scene Analysis, explains why listeners group notes together that are close in frequency, and separate pitches that are far apart. The following excerpt from Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro is an example. The repeated notes are naturally separated from the isolated moving notes because of the distance that separates them in pitch space.


It is also true that human listeners can tolerate inaccuracies in tuning and even pitch, and still recognize a melody, because the way by which we recognize melodies is strongly tied to recognizing melodic contours. Contour also plays a part in how we emotionally respond to music. Take another example from Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro.


Notice how the phrase builds from the starting pitch, a, through the four pitches e a perfect fifth higher, to the high a in the 5th measure. The phrase then begins to relax, coming to rest on “a” at the beginning of measure eight. Then, in the measures that follow, the eighth note motif “lands” on half notes that are successively higher in pitch, climbing b, c, d, e, f, and reaching a climax on g. The shortening of the motif two measures before the climax also helps the tension building. These uses of contour are more than child’s play or rudimentary composition technique. It is a manifestation of the mature Mozart, exercising his creative powers at the peak of his career, using the rising and falling of pitch to write music that is exciting, dramatic and masterful, no matter how many times it is heard. Music teachers must remember the importance of contour to the affect of great masterworks, and continue to teach it beyond the early stages of music education.


One thought on “Musical Ups and Downs–Why is Contour Important?

  1. Pingback: Which Way Is Up? | mr a music place

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