Composition & Improvisation: A Case Study: Part 3 of 24: Deep Melodic Analysis


A good Melody is never some haphazard combination of notes…

Multiple musical elements contribute to the coherence of any good melody. These include the phrase length, melodic contour, rhythmic motives, tension-resolution, and harmonic outlining. Let’s take a look at our simple melody from several musical perspectives…

Phrase Length

The entire form is eight bars long, but those eight bars are broken into two rhythmically- and harmonically-identical 4-bar phrases (PURPLE), which are further subdivided into two 2-bar sub-phrases (GREEN). One might go one step deeper to include two similar 1-bar sub-sub-phrases (RED)…


The Lesson: The profound appreciation of such unifying and hierarchical phrase structure is absolutely essential to understanding form and enables artistic interpretation of written music as well as coherent improvisation.

Melodic Contour

It’s useful to conceive of melodies as having a shape… a contour that can be expressed as a sequence of doodled lines. The lengths, rises and falls, and starts and stops of these doodled lines is a legitimate artistic way to organize our melodic thoughts because these contours are essential to creating directional expectations in the listener’s ear… expectations that can be met or pleasantly surprised.


The Lesson: The ability to “think” about melody in these very sweeping terms, without fussing over each note, is crucial to our comprehension as music readers and fluency as improvisers.

Rhythmic Motives

Rhythm is a powerful organizing force because it creates an expectation in the listener’s ear about what will happen in the future… expectations that can be met or pleasantly surprised. Don’t just read this. Scat sing it “duh, duh, duh -” in order to feel the rhythmic “glue” that gives this melody coherence…


The Lesson: Rhythm is as important, and often more important, than the notes!


Let’s use Solfege to analyze our C major melody in functional terms…


Of course, simply naming the notes accurately and defining the tonality is not the end of the story. Sing the melody out loud… and notice the following:

  • Measure #1 establishes the major-ness of the piece and presents a melodic idea.
  • Measure #2 expands the melodic idea by creating harmonic tension.
  • Measure #3 continues the melodic-harmonic tension.
  • Measure #4 partially resolves the tension, leaving you “hanging” on E (Mi).
  • Measure #5 is equivalent to measure #1 (a simple restatement of the idea).
  • Measure #6 is equivalent to measure #2.
  • Measure #7 is equivalent to measure  #3.
  • Measure #8 is a full resolution of the melody on the tonic C (Do).

It is critically-important that you profoundly understand what is going on here, because it illustrates a standard formula used in countless classical, ragtime, jazz, country, and pop melodies…


The Lesson: Conceiving music in such large-scale structures is absolutely essential for meaningful composition and improvisation… as well as artistic rendering of written music. Always “think” in meaningful, coherent phrases, not just individual notes.  Individual notes do matter, but they matter only within some larger context!

Harmonic Outlining

Time and time again, you are going to discover that melody is as much a harmonic as a scale-wise pattern, so much so that the distinction between harmony and melody is just quibbling. That said, here are the chords with their associated chord tones in the melody circled…


Notice two critically-important things. First, the melody clearly outlines the chord changes. Second, the chord tones fall on strong beats (1&3) and the in-between notes (called passing tones) fall on weak beats (2&4). By the way, this is not an absolute rule of music-making (all rules are meant to be broken), but it illustrates the intimate connection between the melody, harmony, AND meter… and highlights a powerful organizing pattern in all kinds of music: the importance of emphasizing chord tones on strong beats… or is that emphasizing strong beats with chord tones?

Lesson #1: Knowing the chords helps you know the melody and knowing the melody helps you know the chords!

Lesson #2: Scale-wise conceptions of melody are typically too limited and restrictive. It is absolutely essential to include a harmonic conception as well in your compositions and improvisations.

learn more… Composition & Improvisation: A Case Study: Part 4 of 24: Form &¬†Harmony