Composition & Improvisation: Case Study: Part 3 of 24: 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 formula, and harmonic outlining.

Let’s take a look at our simple melody from these important 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)…


Play and sing out loud and don’t fall into the habit of reading, thinking, hearing, and playing “one-note-at-a-time”. Learn to hear the forest for the trees by conceiving of this piece in meaningful musical words and sentences…

Melodic Contour


The ability to think, hear, and feel a melody as having a shape–a contour that can be expressed as a sequence of doodled lines–is crucial to our comprehension as music readers and fluency as improvisers. The lengths, rises and falls, and starts and stops of these doodled lines is an appropriate way to organize our melodic thoughts because these contours create directional expectations in the listener’s ear.

Listen to Frank “sing the doodles”…


Rhythm is no less important than the notes. 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 by saying “duh, duh, duh -” or in order to feel the rhythmic “glue” that gives this melody coherence…


Let’s count and feel the meter by hand clapping while “playing” the rhythm with our voices…


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.

Play and sing the melody out loud…

Yes, Frank is not a vocalist!

… 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 the artistic interpretation of written music. So, always “think”, hear, and feel 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 that the chord tones fall on strong beats (1&3) while the non-chord 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 outlining the harmony by playing chord tones on strong beats… or is that playing strong beats on chord tones?

Let’s mess around by playing the chords and singing the notes to hear and feel how they all work together…

Yes, Frank is not a vocalist!

Two huge takeaways here…

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

Lesson #2: Scale-wise conceptions of melody are typically too limited and restrictive. It is far more appropriate to conceive of melodies in harmonic terms.

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

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