More on “What Is A Melody?”

2011Symposium_1_2Yesterday, I discussed a balanced definition of melody; one that was broad enough to include all music that contains melody, regardless of cultural difference, and one that was specific enough to exclude sequences of sound that by common consent are not musical. The fundamental way that humans learn what a thing is or what it is not, is by observing and testing alternatives. The full moon appears round, and the plate I eat my meals off of is also round, but my plate is not the moon. There are other factors that allow me to know that my plate, even though it is round like the full moon, is not the full moon. I can touch my plate, but not the moon. The moon stays in the sky, but my plate stays wherever I place it. I can touch my plate, but I cannot touch the moon.

In the same way, melodies have certain characteristics that other sequences of sound do not have. Melodies have tones that are mostly close together in frequency, which causes humans to group them together into a unified aural entity. Melodies tend to be centered around a mean frequency—that is, all of the tones in a melody tend to regress to the mean, and that mean frequency tends to be in the middle range of both human hearing capacity, and the ranges of the human voice and of musical instruments.

Melodies also tend to keep a balance between fulfilled and unfulfilled expectations. We derive pleasure from this balance, and so seek it out in our music. Mozart2The interesting thing here is that sometimes we expect things that are not really there, but we continue to expect them anyway. For example, Huron pointed out that the occurrence of a large melodic interval being followed by a smaller interval in the opposite direction only happens 70% of the time in music. Regression to the mean is what is actually occurring. But because nothing upon which our survival depends is at stake, our brains do not attempt the herculean task of calculating the mean and approaches to it in the music, but instead inductively approximate what regression to the mean would be as small interval in the opposite direction of a large interval. This demonstrates that we experience what we perceive or understand, which is not necessarily what is physically present.

Narmour observed that listeners expect small intervals to be followed by another small interval in the same direction. Research has shown that listeners indeed do expect this to happen, even though if often does not. Narmour defines small interval as a third or less. I am reminded of the Richard Rodgers song, “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music.


Figure 1

The beginning of the melody of Do Re Mi by Richard Rodgers, notated with my system described in my post, What is a Convenient Shorthand for Music Notation Within Word Processing Software?


Do5. re4 mi5. do4 | mi5 do mi5 – | re5. mi4 fa4 fa4 mi4 re4 | fa7 etc.


After the third note, a descending third, and then three consecutive thirds follow two consecutive seconds, each in the opposite direction of the previous one. Clearly, the music does not continue in the same direction where small intervals are employed.

Another characteristic of melodies from both Western and non-Western cultures is the tendency to fall in pitch toward the end. For example, this can be observed in most Shenkerian analyses, in Native American songs, and in the Tanzanian song I linked to in my post yesterday.

The next time you hear a sequence of tones, ask yourself if it qualifies as a melody. This is a good activity for students. Is the motor and tire sounds of several cars driving by, a melody? Are the sounds of singing birds a melody? Many would say the birdsong is melody, but some would say it is not music. And this brings us to another interesting question: is all melody music? That one will have to wait for another day.


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