In the previous part of this series on music theory, we took a look at functional harmony and the diatonic modes, two important concepts to expand our knowledge about the fundamentals of composition and songwriting.
In the fourth part of the series we’re going to touch on yet another critical aspect of music theory, which is melody.
Apart from getting to know the most important concepts and techniques surrounding melody, we’ll learn about the connections that exist between it along with rhythm, harmony and timbre, and how all of these different aspects of a melody interact with each other in a constant synergy that makes them inseparable and impossible to understand on their own.
Melody has a three dimensional nature: Harmony, rhythm, and timbre. The harmonic aspect of melody is based on the fact that melodies are made of subsets of notes extracted from scales and chords, which are the main building blocks of harmony. The rhythmic side of a melody has to do with the placement of the notes relative to time, as well as their length. Also, melodies have a timbral component, which is given by the sonic characteristics of the particular instrument carrying out the melody, as well as any other sound related aspects such as dynamics and sound processing.
The harmonic dimension of a melody is determined by the relationship that exists between its notes and the notes of the surrounding harmony. In this sense, the notes of a melody can be divided into harmonic and nonharmonic notes. Harmonic, or chord notes are the notes of a melody that are present in the chord that is harmonizing the melody, whereas nonharmonic notes or nonchord notes are those that don’t belong to the associated chord.
It’s important to maintain a balance between harmonic and nonharmonic notes in our melodies, as an excess of the former will make the melody dull and predictable, whereas an excess of the latter will make it sound dissonant, incongruent and out of place.
Harmonic and non-harmonic notes
There are several important considerations to keep in mind about the rhythm of a melody, one of the most important ones being the relationship that the notes have with the beat.
In this regard, notes can be divided into downbeat notes, when they coincide with the beat, and upbeat notes, when they are placed between beats. Downbeat notes have precedence over upbeat notes in terms of rank and importance, as they are naturally stressed by the music’s pulse and are therefore perceived as more relevant and meaningful.
Due to this fact, downbeat notes are usually the ones that carry out the harmonic notes, whereas upbeat notes are more commonly used for nonharmonic notes.
Downbeat and upbeat notes
Another important factor about the rhythm of a melody has to do with what in music theory is known as form, which is the art of structuring musical elements in a way that they become memorable and easily recognizable. There are entire books written on this subject alone, but the gist of it is that melodies and musical elements in general can be built out of small building blocks called motives which can be combined in numerous ways in order to form larger structures called phrases.
A motive can be defined as the smallest musical unit capable of carrying out a complete and self sufficient musical idea, but despite this self contained characteristic, motives are great to hook to one another and form larger units full of musical intent that can be deconstructed back and forth again into their smaller constituents.
This tension between the construction and deconstruction of musical phrases through the leveraging power of motives is at the core of musical form and an inexhaustible source of inspiration and creativity, which all kinds of musicians have tapped into all throughout the history and evolution of music.
Timbre is a set of sonic qualities that we imprint onto a melody through instrumental choices together with processing and production techniques. These sonic qualities give our melodies a greater sense of identity, helping them to be more unique, original and recognizable.
Our first consideration regarding timbre is the instrument or set of instruments that we are going to assign to our melody. For this, we need to understand key concepts about the characteristics of musical instruments such as polyphony, sustain, pitch range and articulations, so we can choose the best suited instruments to fulfill the specific requirements of any melody.
After deciding on our instruments, it’s time to think about all the different ways in which they can be arranged horizontally and vertically to achieve various effects. For example, we can double several similar sounding instruments on top of each other to create thick and powerful melodies or we can make several instruments take turns playing different fragments of a melody.
Later on, we can get into production techniques to add further characteristics to the overall sound of a melody, using effect units and processing techniques to further manipulate their timbre.
This wraps up our fourth and last part of our series on simple music theory for producers and beatmakers. In it you’ve learned fundamental concepts about melodies as well as many practical considerations and possibilities to keep in mind when writing your next melody.
In future articles we’ll explore further music theory topics such as melody creation and harmonization theory. Stay tuned.