When we listen to a melody, we’re usually able to understand if it sounds good or bad after just a few notes are played. The underlying cognitive processing employed to arrive at such an assessment – although extremely sophisticated – is carried out on an almost unconscious level. It all feels so natural that we don’t realise how many simultaneous elements are contributing to the overall experience. Indeed, a melody is a complex musical construct that involves many musical domains at once. There is pitch content involved, obviously. But a melody also comprises note durations, rhythmic and metrical elements, accents, structural relationships between the different subsets of the melody, articulations and dynamics.
Is there a reason why some melodies sound better than others? Also, are there some common traits that good melodies share between them? Hundreds of years of music practice and musicological analysis has helped us to distill a number of these “features”. Some of them are backed up by the latest research in music cognition, as we’ll see later. So, the reason why some melodies are great may ultimately be rooted in our cognition. Over the history of music, musicians (unconsciously?) tailored their melodies to please the sound-processing hardware we’re all shipped with when we’re born. As an aside, it appears that several contemporary classical music composers haven’t learned the lesson from their musical ancestors though…
To demonstrate the features that make a melody great, I’ll be using sample melodies drawn from the soundtrack of UNDERTALE. UNDERTALE is a role-playing game released in September 2015 by the indie developer Toby Fox. The critic has already acclaimed this game as a cult, and rightly so. The game dynamics, the story, the graphics are absolutely great. The soundtrack, which is entirely composed by Toby Fox, is a little masterpiece characterised by a mix of (sometimes clashing) genres from chiptune to folk music. The music has a complex web of musical themes which are nested and reused throughout the game. I won’t get into the details of the thematic relationships of the UNDERTALE soundtrack in this post, but I will use a few of its melodies to practically show some of the features I’ll be discussing. Jason M. Yu has an in-depth analysis of the UNDERTALE soundtrack on his blog, if you’re interested. Now that we’ve set the field let’s tap into 7 features that contribute to making a great melody.
1- Great melodies often use repeating elements.
Repetition helps listeners to identify meaningful musical patterns and it provides clues about the musical relationships present in a melody. Almost any melody you can think of has elements of repetition. In pop music, for example, there are usually two main sections, the chorus and the verse, which tend to get repeated throughout the duration of a song. The same applies to classical music, where melodies are reiterated time and again. Isn’t repetition boring though? Apparently not. As psychologist Elizabeth Margulis suggests, based on the results of her long-standing research in music perception, repetition “tends to draw us into a participatory stance so that we’re imagining the next note before it happens”. Repetition can also influence how we perceive and process musical materials. Every time we listen to the same pattern we can focus on a different musical aspect.
What are the musical dimensions of a melody involved in repetition? As we can see in the main UNDERTALE theme above, repetition can involve both the pitch and the rhythm content of a melody. In the case of this melody, a musical phrase “x” is repeated exactly the same twice. Both the durations and the pitch of the “x” phrase are cloned. By contrast, in the “y” music unit only the rhythm pattern (i.e., short-short-long) is kept the same. The pitch material, on the other hand, is slightly varied, although the overall inverted-U shape (i.e., contour) of the melodic unit remains the same. The effect of this pitch variation is refreshing and it plays with our expectations (see later). As you can see, repetition can happen at different levels of a melody, from tiny motifs to quite extended musical periods. However, the hierarchical structure of melodies (and of music in general) goes way beyond the scope of this post and it will be material for another article.
2- The pitch range of great melodies is often no more than an octave and a half.
This restriction keeps a melody focused in a limited portion of the pitch spectrum, facilitating the listener’s task to follow along with the musical discourse. Melodies obeying this limitation are also singable, because an average person’s vocal range is normally one and a half to two octaves. It’s worth remembering that the voice is the most important (and most natural) instrument and that it is employed in all of the musical cultures we’re aware of. Singing is an essential aspect of music making, and has influenced the design of musical instruments, too. The capacity for a melody to be sung ultimately increases its memorability.
In the beginning was the voice. Voice is sounding breath, the audible sign of life – Otto Jespersen
The main UNDERTALE theme is apparently singable, in that it has a pitch range of a ninth (an octave plus a second), the lowest note being C5 (circled in green) the highest being D6 (circled in red); and therefore it respects the octave-and-a-half pitch range limitation.
3- Great melodies often comprise stepwise motion with occasional leaps.
This feature is also related to the ability to sing or to whistle a melody. Consecutive notes on a scale (stepwise motion) are easier to sing than leaps. By ensuring that a melody has a prevalence of stepwise motion, the composer makes a line more singable. Good composers use leaps as a way of modulating melodic tension. The larger the leap, the greater the tension induced. After a skip, a melody usually counters the leap by moving in stepwise motion in the opposite direction of the original skip.
The theme for Undyne from UNDERTALE adheres to this feature in that it is characterised by a prevalent use of stepwise motion (marked with “s” in the score), with a few leaps (marked with “l” ) which contribute to shaping the overall directionality of the melody. Two of the three leaps present in the melody are followed by stepwise motion in the opposite direction of the original skip (marked with red and green lines): an ascending octave followed by a descending minor second and a descending minor third followed by an ascending major second.
4- Great melodies often use a limited number of tones.
Good melodies are generally characterised by a subset of the 12 possible tones available to a composer (i.e., the number of semitones spanning a single octave). In most Western classical music, melodies are written employing the 7 tones of the major/minor scales. Sometimes only 5 tones are used, as for example when composers rely on the pentatonic scale. This is common in Chinese music as well as in blues and rock. Of course, non-scale tones are sometimes present in a melody, but they tend to be used as a means for spicing up a line and they usually don’t have a key structural role.
Why do composers limit the number of tones used in a melody? In Music, Language, and the Brain that the neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel explains that this probably has to do with the limitations of our memory capacity. The human short-term memory can store 5 to 7 items in mind in an active, readily available state for a short span of time. Therefore, the 5 to 7 tones of a good melody can be thought of as enough information to keep us engaged when tracking the notes of a melodic line, while not being a prohibitive cognitive challenge resulting from tracking too many items at once. This may explain why some contemporary classical music which tends to use all of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale isn’t that popular among listeners.
Both melodies from UNDERTALE we’ve seen so far respect this pitch content rule. In particular, the main UNDERTALE theme employs 4 different tones only. As a good exercise, you can count the number of different tones present in the Undyne theme by yourself.
5- Great melodies often have a climactic point.
A climactic point usually refers to the highest pitch of a melody, but it can be the result of a mixture of things: high note, long duration, strong metrical placement (e.g., strong beat), relevant harmonization. What’s sure is that the climactic point corresponds with the maximum degree of tension in a musical theme.
In Shop, from the UNDERTALE soundtrack, there’s a climactic point (circled in red in the score) which arguably corresponds with the global peak of tension of the piece. Why is this so? The climactic point I’ve identified is the highest note of the melody, it is placed on a strong metric place (i.e., the downbeat), it has a long duration compared to the neighbour notes (minim) and it is the apical point of an ascending motion.
6- Great melodies balance the use of consonant and dissonant tones.
Melodies are usually played on top of harmonic structures organised into chords. Chords are sets of three or more notes which are heard as if sounding simultaneously. Harmony tends to constrain melody. In particular, all the notes of a melody which are part of the underlying chord (i.e, chord tones) are deemed as consonant. By contrast, non-chord tones sound dissonant. The bulk melodic structure of a good melody is normally built upon consonant tones. Strong rhythmic points are usually filled up with chord tones. In his Models for Beginners in Music Composition, Arnold Schoenberg suggests to start crafting a melody by creating a skeleton made up of chord tones only first, and then to enrich it by adding up all sorts of non-harmonic tones, such as passing notes, appoggiaturas and suspensions. Indeed, non-chord tones are used to embellish a melody and to increase its musical variety, and therefore interest.
The balance between consonant and dissonant notes in a melody is well illustrated by the Temmie Village theme from UNDERTALE. In this melody, the ratio of chord tones (“C”) to non-chord tones (“N”) is a bit less than 3:1. The dissonant tones, which comprise passing notes, appoggiaturas and suspensions, tend to be placed on weak metrical points. This helps the listeners to (unconsciously) figure out that the non-chord tones are nice-to-have embellishments which spice up the line without interfering with the structural tones of the melody, which are almost all based on consonant notes.
7- Great melodies often have a strict relationship with the bass line.
There are three ways that melodies can interact with the bass. With parallel motion the bass and the melody move in the same direction. With oblique motion one part remains unchanged, while the other moves. With contrary motion both lines move in opposite direction. A good melody generally mixes several of these techniques to create a more a dynamic bass line that feels like a countermelody. The bass, treated this way, adds interest and variety to the melody.
We’re back again to the main UNDERTALE theme to demonstrate this melodic feature. As most good melodies, the theme employs all three types of relationships between the melody and the bass parts; although parallel motion clearly has the lion’s share here. This may be a deliberate compositional choice and it’s probably one of the reasons why this melody, although very simple, is so haunting. At least this is my take!
As in any artistic domains none of the features I’ve outlined in this post are set in the stone. The history of music is populated with countless melodies that contravene one or more of these rules and they are still great. Think of the main motif of the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (see the video above from 8” to 14”). By featuring mostly leaps and chord tones, this motif clearly breaks both rules 3 and 6. However, who would dare saying that this melody is less than perfect? It’s the role of the composer to break the rules and to surprise us with innovative solutions, which may attract our attention and stimulate our imagination. As a general point though, it’s possible to trace a high-level trait that’s common to most of the features I’ve listed. Writing a great melody is all about balance, balance, balance. Specifically, a composer should find the right balance between fulfilling the listeners’ expectations – in any of the possible musical parameters – and to surprise them with unexpected, sometimes unpredictable, musical ideas. Paraphrasing the insightful research of musicologist David Huron, we can claim that listeners want to be in control of what’s going on in a melody but sometimes they also like to be fooled.
Now, let’s do a simple experiment to put this (new) theoretical knowledge into practice. Think of some of the melodies you’re most fond of. Do those tunes have the features I’ve discussed? Are there any features missing? Can you trace other common musical traits in the melodies I didn’t mention? Share your “analysis” below in the comments!