When I want to learn more about what makes a harmony special, I go right to roman numeral analysis.

I have a list of melodies that caught my ear, and I wanted to see what makes them work. I am wondering, given that a melody is based on many elements, such as pitch, rhythm, shape (contour), accompanying harmony, etc. what would be a methodical approach to dissecting the melodies?

I think one important question here is: "is there one preponderant element in making a melody work?" For example, could the pleasant sound I am hearing be not so much the melody, but, rather, the mellifluous chord change underneath? Maybe rather than thinking about the technical elements of melody (stated above), I should rather think in a more abstract way--consonant vs dissonant notes, tension vs resolution, maybe steps vs leaps?

Long story short--I am looking for a way to study melodies I like in a manner that is methodical and organized the way studying harmonies can be--sort of a "to-do list" for dissecting melodies I like.



  • If you play some Inventions (2- and 3- part) and preludes by Bach's WTC (D major, C major) you'll discover probably all melodic turns and chord progressions that are need to build a system of basic melodic elements that you'll find in folk and pop music. Jun 4, 2020 at 7:54
  • It might be worth noting that melodies imply rhythms and harmony, and they can be ambiguous. If you hear a plain melody line, depending on various things, you may identify a different tonic, different meter and different beat offset inside the meter, compared to how someone else or even you yourself in some other circumstances might identify them. Should these subjective and context-dependent things be decided by the person who transcribes the melody? Are they actually a part of the melody? How about different backing chord changes on a recording - do they change the melody? What is a melody? Jun 4, 2020 at 8:59

3 Answers 3


One way to do this is to first do a roman-numeral analysis and then examine which scale degrees or modal patterns are used over each chord. This is the vertical way of analyzing melody, comparing what's in the "right hand" with what's in the "left hand," conceptually speaking. It seems like you have already been doing this, but if not, let me know and I can provide more details.

From your question, it sounds like you are interested in horizontal ways of analyzing melodies: organizing how the melody moves along the time axis. In broad terms, taking note of common melodic devices like rhythmic patterns, scalar patterns, inversion and retrograde, and so on can all be grouped under horizontal analysis.

But if you're looking for a horizontal counterpart to roman-numeral analysis, I would recommend learning movable-do solfege. When you learn to sing a melody using solfege, you gain an awareness of how the melody moves in relation to its tonic. If you learn to sing many melodies with solfege, you will slowly acquire an intuition for which notes tend to resolve in which ways. For example, in Western art music the leading tone ti tends to resolve upward to do.

(There is also a system called fixed-do solfege in which the notes are essentially given one-syllable names that correspond to the solfege syllables in C major. It is popular among its adherents, but I don't think it will suit your purposes, since it doesn't really involve "analyzing" the melody and instead is more of alternative system of note names. In general, undergraduate music programs in the US are moving away from fixed-do and toward movable-do, although there are exceptions.)

Beyond that, the answer will vary depending on the genre of music you are interested in.


I do almost everything by movable solfege. But this doesn't allow an analysis of melodies (it is a good help for memorizing, sight reading, notation and transposing).

There are rules for a good cantus firmus in the Gregorian choral (upwards - repercussion tone- downwards) that you also find in many folksongs.

If you analyse the melodies of chorals, sonatas, arias, pop songs you recognize some basic principles but they still don't show what you seem to be looking for (consonances, dissonances).

Ernst Kurth has written in his "Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts" about tension in a melody and explained their psychological function.

This work has been translated by Rothfarb:

This book provides a selection of annotated translations from Ernst Kurth's three best-known publications: Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts (1917), Romantische Harmonik und ihre Krise in Wagners "Tristan" (1920), and Bruckner (1925). Kurth's contemporaries considered these books to be pioneering studies in the music of J. S. Bach, Wagner, and Bruckner. The translated passages were chosen because they articulate Kurth's pre-analytical attitudes and illustrate many of his analytical strategies. The book includes Kurth's commentary on over 100 music examples. An extensive introductory essay discusses the intellectual and sociocultural environment in which Kurth was writing, referring to aspects of the early twentieth-century cultural renewal movements and to intellectual developments of the day in phenomenology, aesthetics and psychology. In this essay and in the commentaries on the translated passages there are numerous references to hitherto unpublished correspondence between Kurth and his close friend the composer-theorist August Halm (1869-1929).


this is the original book:


page 147 ff E. Kurth discusses Bach's melodic style.


I hope this quotation may help you to find your to-do-liste.

  1. Most good melodies restrict their basic range to no more than an octave-and-a-half.
  2. Most good melodies use repeating elements. Listeners should be hearing certain melodic intervals, rhythms and other musical shapes repeating throughout the melody.

  3. Most good melodies are comprised of stepwise motion (i.e., move by scale steps), with occasional leaps. Melodies that are too leapy are often too difficult to sing. Good writers use melodic leaps as a good way to generate little shots of energy.

  4. Most good melodies have a discernible relationship with the bass line. There are four ways that melodies can move with respect to the bass: parallel motion (the melody and bass move in the same direction by the same interval); similar motion (both move in the same direction by a different interval); oblique motion (one stays the same while the other moves); and contrary (both parts move in opposite directions.) You’ll want to mix & match these four ways. By doing so, you create a bass that feels almost like a countermelody, and frees up your bass from being overly static.

  5. Most good melodies have a climactic point,down from which it moves to a cadence (a “rest spot”). A climactic point usually refers to a melody’s highest pitch, but not always. A climactic point is a mixture of things: a high note, along with a significant harmonization, and a strong rhythmic placement, like on a strong beat.


and here's a translation of this German site:



The main criterion for the unmistakable shape of a melody is its contour, the pure sequence of pitches from which the intervals result. The rhythm and metrics are also important for the individuality of a melody; there are big differences between the melodies of the world cultures.


Melody (Greek: melos = song, song) is one of the oldest basic elements of music in all cultures. It was part of the development of human social culture: signal motifs generated on animal horns, chants as an expression of social togetherness or in conjuring rituals probably accompanied the development of the earliest human social structures.

The stylistic features of melody are very diverse in the cultures of the world. In the popular European tradition, the emphasis is on formal unity and easy singability, while improvisational elements, microtonal pitch fluctuations or formal openness play an important role in the melody of other cultures. Within the occidental music tradition there are also big differences in the stylistic expression of the melody between the individual epochs.

Elementary melody formation

The main criterion for the unmistakable shape of a melody is its contour, the pure sequence of pitches from which the intervals result. The rhythm and metrics are also important for the individuality of a melody; there are big differences between the melodies of the world cultures.

Example: Melody of a Brazilian samba, next to it the pure melodic contour:


Many musical cultures and styles have in common pentatonic music, in its original form a kind of call melody, as you know it from the early phase of childish music learning or from archaic blues singing. The sound system and different octave divisions do not yet play a role.

Example: Pentatonic call motif and next to it the full pentatonic scale:

Cultural differences in melody

Different material scales have developed in the world's music cultures: in some cultures, the sound material contains more than 20 levels, others manage with five- or six-tone sound material.

The instruments used are tuned accordingly, and the melodic character of the individual musical traditions differs greatly.

In the western music tradition, a sound system with twelve "equidistant" levels has been developed, which is based on the semitone step as the smallest interval.

Some terms:

  • equidistant = with the same distance

  • Sound system: The division of the octave into defined pitches on which a particular music practice is based and the resulting intervals.

  • Material scale: The entire sound material of a sound system, arranged in the form of a scale. (At the Paris World's Fair in 1889, the French composer CLAUDE DEBUSSY got to know the Javanese Gamelan Orchestra and was fascinated by the foreign sound system with its irregular division of the octave. He tried to interpret the sound impression of the scales as pentatonic or whole scale, i.e. with the means of the European twelve-tone system, and to translate it into his own tonal language.)

Melody and harmony

Many melodies, especially those from the style of folk song and classical music, carry a harmony course that is represented by rhythmically or melodically emphasized chordal tones. Chord-foreign tones are more likely to be found as passage notes on unstressed beats. Numerous melodies contain additional harmonic elements in the form of triad breaks (melodically broken chords).

Example: The theme of “Little Night Music” by WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART consists of triad breaks that clearly show the harmonic progression: G major triad upwards, dominant seventh chord downwards.

Character of melodies

Melodies can be differentiated according to their character:

vocal and instrumental, song-like, recitative, virtuoso-arios etc.

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