A melody (from Greek μελῳδία - melōidía, "singing, chanting"), also tune, voice, or line, is a linear succession of musical tones which is perceived as a single entity. In its most literal sense, a melody is a sequence of pitches and durations, while, more figuratively, the term has occasionally been extended to include successions of other musical elements such as tone color.
Melodies often consist of one or more musical phrases or motifs, and are usually repeated throughout a song or piece in various forms. Melodies may also be described by their melodic motion or the pitches or the intervals between pitches (predominantly conjunct or disjunct or with further restrictions), pitch range, tension and release, continuity and coherence, cadence, and shape.
Given the many and varied elements and styles of melody "many extant explanations [of melody] confine us to specific stylistic models, and they are too exclusive." Paul Narveson claimed in 1984 that more than three-quarters of melodic topics had not been explored thoroughly.
The melodies existing in most European music written before the 20th century, and popular music throughout the 20th century, featured "fixed and easily discernible frequency patterns", recurring "events, often periodic, at all structural levels" and "recurrence of durations and patterns of durations".
Melodies in the 20th century have "utilized a greater variety of pitch resources than has been the custom in any other historical period of Western music." While the diatonic scale is still used, the twelve-tone scale became "widely employed." Composers also allotted a structural role to "the qualitative dimensions" that previously had been "almost exclusively reserved for pitch and rhythm". Kliewer states, "The essential elements of any melody are duration, pitch, and quality (timbre), texture, and loudness. Though the same melody may be recognizable when played with a wide variety of timbres and dynamics, the latter may still be an "element of linear ordering"
Different musical styles use melody in different ways. For example:
- Jazz musicians use the melody line, called the "lead" or "head", as a starting point for improvisation.
- Rock music, melodic music, and other forms of popular music and folk music tend to pick one or two melodies (verse and chorus) and stick with them; much variety may occur in the phrasing and lyrics.
- Indian classical music relies heavily on melody and rhythm, and not so much on harmony as the above forms.
- Balinese gamelan music often uses complicated variations and alterations of a single melody played simultaneously, called heterophony.
- In western classical music, composers often introduce an initial melody, or theme, and then create variations. Classical music often has several melodic layers, called polyphony, such as those in a fugue, a type of counterpoint. Often, melodies are constructed from motifs or short melodic fragments, such as the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Richard Wagner popularized the concept of a leitmotif: a motif or melody associated with a certain idea, person or place.
- While in both most popular music and classical music of the common practice period pitch and duration are of primary importance in melodies, the contemporary music of the 20th and 21st centuries pitch and duration have lessened in importance and quality has gained importance, often primary. Examples include musique concrete, klangfarbenmelodie, Elliott Carter's Eight Etudes and a Fantasy which contains a movement with only one note, the third movement of Ruth Crawford-Seeger's String Quartet 1931 (later reorchestrated as Andante for string orchestra) in which the melody is created from an unchanging set of pitches through "dissonant dynamics" alone, and György Ligeti's Aventures in which recurring phonetics create the linear form.
- Apel, Willi. Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed., p.517-19. 
- Edwards, Arthur C. The Art of Melody, p.xix-xxx. Includes "a catalog of sample definitions." 
- Holst, Imogen (1962/2008). Tune, Faber and Faber, London. ISBN 0-571-24198-0.
- Smits van Waesberghe, J. (1955). A Textbook of Melody: A course in functional melodic analysis, American Institute of Musicology. Includes "an attempt to formulate a theory of melody." 
- Szabolcsi, Bence (1965). A History Of Melody, Barrie and Rockliff, London.
- ^ Melodia, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, at Perseus project
- ^ a b c d e f g h i Kliewer, Vernon (1975). "Melody: Linear Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music", Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music, p.270-301. Wittlich, Gary (ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-049346-5.
- ^ Narveson, Paul (1984). Theory of Melody. ISBN 0-8191-3834-7.
- ^ Marquis, G. Welton (1964). Twentieth Century Music Idioms, p.2. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.