This lesson teaches you about melodic contour, which helps musicians understand how melodies rise and fall.
Learn about the four types of melodic motion, and analyze the contours of some famous melodies to find out what makes them so special.
What Is Melodic Contour?
Music is made up of several different elements, but one that we all recognize is melody. Melody refers to a musical idea built of individual, consecutive pitches. You also might think of it as a single musical line. Melody is distinct from harmony, in that a melody is heard as single notes, one right after the other, while harmony features notes sounding simultaneously.
Melodies can be built of as few as two notes and they often stretch for hundreds of notes.There are millions of different possible melodies. Chances are, you know a few hundred that you could hum or whistle right now. Think of, for example, your favorite nursery rhyme or your country’s national anthem.
These melodies all take material from the same twelve-note chromatic scale, so how can they be so different, and how do we as listeners tell them apart? One way is through knowing each melody’s contour. Contour refers to the sequence of motions between notes of a melody. In other words, contour is a measurement of how a melody moves between individual notes. All melodies have contour and it’s one of the properties that’s most useful for identifying and cataloguing melodies.
The Four Types of Melodic Motion
Music theorists examine a melody’s contour by looking at the motion between individual notes. When one note moves to another, it can either move up or down, and it can either move by step to an adjacent note or by leap to a note farther away.
There are four possible combinations of these variables, and so there are four basic types of melodic motion. A melody can move up by step, down by step, up by leap, or down by leap.The exact combination of these four motions that a melody possesses gives it its contour.
We can visualize the contour as a long, squiggly line. The line gives us information about the melody’s balance between up, down, step, and leap. More detailed information about contour can include the exact intervals of each motion, which replaces the simple step/leap understanding.
Using and Analyzing Contour
Understanding melodies by their contour can be useful because reproducing the contour will reproduce the melody, even in different keys.
Take, for example, the tune ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ Understanding its individual notes as C, C, G, G, A, A, G enables you to play the melody in C Major. However, examine the contour: up a fifth, up a step, down a step. Using this information, we can reproduce the melody in any key. All we need is to choose a starting note and reproduce the contour.Understanding contour also helps us understand what makes melodies memorable and expressive, which can be helpful for all musicians.
To begin, good melodies tend to have diverse contours; that is, they tend to make balanced use of all different types of melodic motion. Good melodies will also often feature opposite pairs of motion. In other words, a melodic motion that’s followed by a motion which, in whole or in part, features its opposite.So, if a melodic line begins by moving up a leap, the composer can make it expressive and memorable by moving down (the opposite of up) or by step (the opposite of the leap), or both.
Let’s look at the contour of a great melody and see how it affects our perception of the music.
We’ll begin with this melody by John Williams, from the sci-fi classic Star Wars, known as ‘Leia’s Theme.’Take a moment and examine this melody. There are a few things about its contour that we might notice right away. First of all, it’s very wide. The range of the melody from its highest note to its lowest notes spans over an octave.
This gives the composer lots of room for expressive ideas. Second, Williams makes use of large leaps, giving the music a longing, emotional quality.How does ‘Leia’s Theme’ meet our expectations for what good melodies will do? Remember that good melodies will have diverse contours with all different types of motion and will feature opposite pairs adjacent to one another.
If we examine the contour in detail, we’ll see that in the first two bars, John Williams has already used an upward leap, a downward leap, an upward step, and a downward step. That’s all four types of motion, making for a very diverse contour right off the bat. Because we’re always hearing a different type of motion, we never know what to expect for the next note. That keeps us engaged in the music and makes the melody even more soulful and unique.
Now, let’s look at the contour in more detail. What types of motion are next to each other? ‘Leia’s Theme’ opens with the large upward leap, which is connected to a small upward step. Williams has created an opposite pair on the step versus leap dimension. After that upward step, the next motion is a downward step.
Now an opposite pair is created: up versus down. After a pair of downward steps, the step versus leap dimension is changed once again as the melody leaps downward.The second phrase is similar in its contour, and look, the downward leap at the end of the first phrase is itself an opposite of the second phrase’s initial upward leap. So this melody gets its beautiful, expressive quality in a large part from its contour.
Williams uses a variety of melodic motions and seldom uses the same type of motion twice. The result is a memorable, expressive melody that goes down in history as one of the greatest.
Melody is a musical gesture that is built of consecutive, individual pitches.
Melody can also be thought of as a single musical line. To discuss what makes melodies memorable and expressive, musicians use the concept of melodic contour, which is the sequence of motions between a melody’s individual notes. All melodies have contour, and all melodies utilize a combination of four basic types of melodic motion: step up, step down, leap up, and leap down.Contour analysis can classify the melody’s motions according to these four types. Or it can name exact intervals, allowing the melody to be transposed by applying the contour from any starting note.Great melodies like John Williams’ ‘Leia’s Theme’ from Star Wars tend to favor certain contour elements.
For example, they’ll often have diverse contours involving all four types of melodic motion in each gesture. Great melodies will also often feature opposite pairs, such as a leap followed by a step, an upward motion followed by a downward motion, or both.