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I am listening to some pieces where the whole composition or some internal parts seem to contain only harmony/chords without producing a discernible melody. Is this some particular technique or we can define it as 'just a progression of chords without melody'?

Some examples from contemporary jazz:

  • Hood | Vijay Yier (this can be probably considered a minimalist piece)
  • Starlings | Vijay Yier, the part that starts at 1:49
  • 547 | Dan Tepfer
    (the part that starts at 2:52)
  • One, Twenty-Four | Triosk
    (the whole piece)

The Vijay Yier pieces are not on YouTube.

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  • The top note of each chord often makes a melody, as in chorale style music. There are also chordal melodies. Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 16:48
  • Welcome! Please take a moment to read about the topics that are covered here. Questions that ask for a list of pieces are not covered; I recommend editing to ask more about this idea than asking for examples of it. Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 17:47
  • 2
    @AndyBonner Where does the OP ask for a list? On the contrary, they provide examples related to their question. Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 18:11
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    @AndyBonner I agree with John. This is a terminology question.
    – Aaron
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 18:17
  • 2
    Apologies; I think I just invented the "request for list" from the title. Close vote retracted! Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 19:04

3 Answers 3

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Even though these are not “sing around the campfire” type pieces they do have melodic and compositional elements to them. There is no specific name I’m aware of for music that has this chordal atmospheric non-melodic (in the traditional sense) style, I would attribute it to the sub-genre of jazz these pieces are a part of. These pieces are also highly improvisational. The artists are the only ones that can tell you to what degree they are composed or improvised.

As for the Dan Tepfer recording at 2:52, that is a drum feature/solo over a chord vamp. Although drum solos are usually that, a drummer playing alone, there are many instances where a drummer solos over a vamp or progression provided by the other players.

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If chords are the "vertical" aspect of combining pitches, the simultaneous sounding of pitches, and melody is the "horizontal" aspect of combining pitches, then any time there is a pitch changing over time it is melody. Technically that horizontal aspect of pitch changes would be called melodic contour. For a better definition of melody you also want to include rhythm so repeated pitches can be distinguished.

In the examples you have given there are both instances of pitches changing over time and of pitches repeated using rhythm. Things happen with pitch and rhythm as time rolls along. At its essence that is melody.

I imagine you really want to distinguish that kind of melody with melody that you get in common songs like The Star Spangled Banner or Happy Birthday, etc. etc. Here is a partial list of what distinguishes that kind of melody:

  • Homophonic texture, chords and bass lines that are separate in melodic/rhythmic terms from the main melody, but harmonically support the melody. Harmonic rhythm is an important concept here and in homophonic texture the main melody usually moves faster rhythmically than the harmonic rhythm. Not only do the chords support the melody, there is also a common view that the melody is generated from the chords, the melody is constrained by the chords.
  • Melodies comprised of phrases, lines that end with cadences or some kind of harmonically articulated ending. The tonic/dominant harmonic paradigm looms large in melodic phrasing.
  • Periodic structure, lines paired with an inconclusive ending followed by conclusive ending, often repeated phrases with alternate endings, strongly linked to rhythm schemes of lyrics, even when songs aren't technically periodic the concept is really important for the structural sense of what a song is.

By comparison the examples you gave are "block chord" or parallel movement. There may be more than one "voice" (meaning the various tones of chords) but they all move together. They are not homophonic texture. The passages also seem to just expand without repeating material or articulating harmonic endings. They aren't periodic.

'just a progression of chords without melody'?

A fundamental concept in harmony, especially as it relates historically to counterpoint leading to a harmonic style, is chords are generated by the movement of voices. Voices here is synonymous with parts or melodies. From that point of view you can't have a chord progression without the movement of voices, the movement of melodic lines.

In practical terms, let's say you have for example, chords G7 C, the "melodies" in that, the movement of voices, using typical voice leading is F to E, G to C, D to C, and B to C. In modern times you might simply think of two chord units G7 and C, but historically the concern was more about how to move the voices, and that is the origin of the idea chords are generated by movement of voices.

I think you want to try getting away from thinking of melody only in terms of "the melody" or "a melody" as it relates to songs and homophonic texture. For many people that is their only conception of melody. And when no context is given that is the general understanding of what someone means when they speak of melody. But for a fuller study of music and lots of different styles you need a broader definition of melody.

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Listening to your first example, '547', 12 seconds in there actually IS a melody, albeit a not very 'melodic' one! But, OK, the whole piece COULD have continued like the first 10 seconds. 'One, Twenty-Four' illustrates your point rather better.

Yes, focussing on texture, rhythm and/or harmony, any discernible melody being merely incidental, is something music can do. Maybe in a tribal or religious chant, in a drum solo, in some modern 'new age' or 'minimal' piece. It's part of a composer's or performer's options. (Maybe, if they happen to be a snare drum soloist, their ONLY option!)

There is also, of course, music that ignores 'chords', it's JUST the melody. And music that has little rhythm (music exists in time, so there must be SOME sequence of events that could be considered 'rhythm'?)

If you want to start labelling things, I suggest you concentrate on what a piece DOES have rather than listing the (possibly many) things it DOESN'T include.

Your example pieces have more content than JUST chords. They have rhythm, texture, timbre...

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