Skip to content

MUS654 Session 2: What makes a melody?

Pitch is everywhere…

How are pitch and melody related?


Last week you we explored the experience of sound, soundscapes, analysing and describing it. Was that also about music? The sounds around us everyday can have musical qualities, but are they actually music? What about, for example, birdsong… the relation of the notes produced when birds sing to measurable musical intervals was analysed in this article: Is birdsong music? It is one example of what could be a very controversial topic. As we know, many composers have included elements of birdsong in their works, from Haydn in his string quartet op.33 no.3 to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony where in the second movement the flute, oboe, and clarinet mimic the sounds of the nightingale, quail, and cuckoo. Read more about how composers used birdsong by listening to or reading the transcript of the lecture given by David Matthews in 2011 as a part of the City of London Festival.                                                       Photo: CC

However, there will always be people with opposing points of view. Neurologist Adam Tierney is quoted in this article Birdsong is not music after all saying “It doesn’t mean their song is meaningless…. it’s just not human song.”


1. Copy a bit of birdsong. It might only be a couple of seconds, as they are complicated little creatures, but have a go. What are the notes? Is it simple? Is there a structure? Does it follow any of your ‘musical’ expectations or conventions?

2. Fake it. That’s right. Use the rules or the non rules that you discovered to fake some birdsong. Can you make a believable rendition that is just your own? …and how does it feel to do that? As always, write it down – tweet it, blog it, tag it. and comment on each other’s work. Let people know if their tweet sings a song.


Photo: CC licensed

How is melody related to speech?

Task: Play me your story.

Take the opening few lines, or stanza of one of your favourite nursery rhymes and read it out. Record your voice and then:

  • Notate it – showing the musical notes’ pitch and values from your spoken word

  • Play it on your instrument

Share the sound recording of your voice + a screenshot of the musical notation. Note if there were any surprises? More or less melodic than you thought??


Zatorre and Baum have taken the time to analyse these differences in Western speech in their 2012 article: Musical melody and speech intonation: Singing a different tune

Across the globe there are different types of languages, and for cultures with melodic speech there are different considerations when putting speech to music. For example, in Mandarin the sound ‘ma’ can be said several different ways, and depending on the intonation (yes, really the pitch and shape of the ascending or descending pitch in that word) it means totally different things – in this case it can mean ‘mother’ or ‘horse’, and those are two not to mix up accidentally! We considers exactly how a melodic language is impacted when put to song in this article:

Unravelling the relation between Mandarin tones and musical melody


So what makes a melody?

Here’s what wikipedia says about it

Within music, there have been various points of view and Mattheson (pictured below, CC licensed image) suggests four components of a good melody: facility, clarity, it must be flowing, and must have charm. 

Johann_MatthesonBelow are some of the points quoted to support and explain elements of facility, and even though his advice is over 250 years old, it rings surprisingly true.

  • There must be something in all melodies with which almost everyone is familiar.
  • Everything of a forced, farfetched, and difficult nature must be avoided.
  • One must follow nature for the most part, practice to some degree.
  • Melody must have certain limits which everyone can attain.
  • Brevity is preferred to prolixity.

Now, as someone who lived from 1681-1764, not all of his sentiments are to be taken seriously- such as suggesting that in some aspects of melody,  ‘…the French are more to be imitated than the Italians.’ which is a heavily time-based and personal sentiment relating to his perceived aspects of those cultures in his day.

Read the full essay by David Whitwell on Mattheson’s concept of melody here.

What about an earworm?


Photo CC licensed

Hopefully the picture above is enough of an introduction and maybe even gave you a bit of an earworm. Listen to this short radio programme where descriptions of people’s experiences with these singable and potentially annoying melodic snippits and explanations as to why these tunes are so catchy.

Music earworms that stick in our heads as broadcast on Feb. 2, 2012.

And have a read of this article published in 2006 in the UK newspaper The Guardian: Can’t get it out of my head

Lastly, there is a very well written blog post by Dr. Gaertner, Professor of Neuroanatomy at the University of British Columbia that collates quite a few recent research studies on the subject of earworms: Earworms: What makes a tune sticky?

These should set the scene and give you a bit of an understanding, besides your own practical experience.


Go on, give us an earworm…

How short of a sound byte does it take? Or can it be just text? I think it can be done in two notes or even two syllables. There’s a challenge.


Give that pitch a home…



It is not enough just to string notes together; there is a lot to be said for the element of context. Anything treated in isolation can either be meaningless or have any meaning – the associative value is essential. So if we give that pitch a home, it hopefully goes from tones to tunes, and that means it should be possible to conceive of a variety of material as ‘melodic’, if we agree that a melody has some sort of coherence and associative meaning, which could depicting a beautiful flower or that it stems from a tonal or harmonic framework.





Photo: CC licensed

Violinist Duane Padilla, who was trained classically and now is one of the foremost Jazz players in America made a short video for us on the topic, where he practically demonstrates the makings of both a melody and a riff:


Hungry for more information? There is a very good (very technical) article by Pierce and Wiggins here:


In this article the background theories for understanding melodic (tonal) shapes and how different factors like the intervals, direction of movement, how often certain notes return, as well as the person’s experience and training impact their expectations and perceptions of melodic material are set out alongside a body of existing research. One goal of the authors was to create an algorithm to predict what people understood, and so the content is highly technical.

As with many technical articles, you may want to sift through the content – reading the introduction which will give you the historical background of theory and other research, and the discussion at the end – and absorb the technical details of the actual experiment over time, depending on how interested you are. (that may be a very frank bit of advice, but honestly, you shouldn’t be expected to read every word of all the references out there!)

Pierce and Wiggins did test real people and there are relevant key points that we can take from their concluding discussion (from p.401 in the article):

  • “that patterns of expectation elicited in a range of melodic contexts can be accounted for in terms of the combined influence of sensitivities to certain dimensions of the musical surface, relatively simple learning mechanisms, and the structure of the musical environment”
  • “regularities in pitch structure defined in relation to the first note in a melody are capable of exerting strong influences on expectancy”
  • “melodic contexts differ in the extent to which they emphasize different features used in cuing attention to salient events”

Think about the different components, listed by Mattheson and in the articles above as you listen to the ‘melodic’ content within the drum solo and then how pitch and shape are used in the vibes solo.

What do other musicians say?



Bing Crosby singing ‘Play a simple melody’

Ah, we love to whistle a happy tune as we walk, as we work, in the shower… but how often have we thought about what makes a melody and how it’s characteristics influence or impact how it is encountered or learned.

Everyone can think of a favourite tune. There are also tunes that are associated with certain instruments… for example The Swan by Camille Saënt-Saens is associated with the cello. The solo from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird is iconically associated with the electric guitar. Can you think of a tune that ‘goes’ with your instrument? Perhaps you can think of a few… maybe it is more challenging for some instruments than for others…



Dress up a melody.

Seriously. Does that iconic tune that really have to go on a certain instrument? Test it out. Choose a real classic that is perfect on whatever it is… whether it is Judy Garland’s voice or Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, and play that tune on your instrument. Give it a face lift, see if it works. Is it still as good? Is it better? Play it. Record it. Share the recording if you are willing. Write about the experience: blog it. Tag it This is all about process…. what does it reveal to you about the melody, about the instrument, and maybe even about playing on your instrument?


Photo credit: CC licensed

These tasks are designed to start you thinking about the puzzle pieces, so when it comes time to create your own picture, you have the equipment and the perspective to do it.

A fantastic reference:

Leonard Bernstein discusses ‘What is a melody?’ in his young people’s concert series:

Continue through the series to watch all of his lecture!


So, a roundup of tasks!

  • birdsong – copy it and then fake it

  • speak me a story and musicify it – notate/play it

  • give us an earworm 

  • cross-dress a melody

  • …and explore some of the references.

Post and tag your work and comments throughout the week – any questions can be tweeted or emailed to me … happy to help and to reply. 



Finally, because it is so lovely, here is the one note Samba sung by Ella Fitzgerald. enjoy!

One Note Samba: Ella Fitzgerald




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.