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A web site reads :

The difference between notes and chords is that a note is a single pitch (for example C). ... This is important in music theory because a note will have no characteristic when played on its own. However, when a chord is formed from a group of notes then this will form a certain feel of mood (E.g. happy, sad, bright or dark).

My question is that, since a good melody does have a certain feel of mood, the melody is built from both notes and chords. Am I right?

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    SBMVNO - please don't change a question after answers have been posted. It can invalidate existing answers, or at least change the way others would answer. You can always post a new answer, and even refer to the old one for context if applicable.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Mar 13, 2023 at 9:11
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    My short answer is: I wouldn’t put too much effort into making sense of this quote. It doesn’t say what it’s trying to say very well, and I’m not sure it’s thought about it very well either. The point it’s trying to make is easy to argue against, and it only applies to certain types of music. I’ll post my longer answer later— if I can find time, I’d even like to record a video to disprove it! Mar 13, 2023 at 11:09
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    I had a quibble with the web site's wording too. Notes and chords are not the horizontal/vertical aspects of pitch. Both melody and chords are notated with notes. Mar 13, 2023 at 14:24
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    I vtc as the question is somewhat vague. I tried to answer, but now realise maybe I answered a different question!
    – Tim
    Mar 13, 2023 at 15:54
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    The whole article is amateurish. It is badly written with bad grammar and faulty explanations. Ignore it and find something better! Mar 13, 2023 at 23:09

8 Answers 8

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Your question deals with pitch and how it is used expressively.

The expressiveness of a single pitch is limited, but I would not say it has no expressiveness, no character. Excluding other factors like timbre or dynamics pitches do fall within some range high or low, and that will give a single pitch some character.

But the really big potential for pitch comes from the relationships of one pitch to another. Those relationships can either be successive - one pitch after another - which is melody, or they can be simultaneous - which is chords and harmony.

There are many ways to compose melody and harmony, but one common way to do it treats melody as being derived from chords. An example is the opening four bars from Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik where the melody is formed entirely from the pitches of a G major triad and a D7 dominant seventh chord. This can be called arpeggiation or broken chord melody.

You can also think of this chord/melody relationship in the opposite direction: the melody implies the chords G and D7. We don't literally hear the pitches of the chords played simultaneously, but their relationship to the chords is so clear and direct it's like we can hear the chords in our minds.

Melodic lines can also imply chord even when the melody is not a obvious broken chord line. Scale degrees have certain harmonic tendencies which can imply chords. Tendency tones is a term applied to this concept. Probably the most obvious example, given in solfege, is DO TI DO, where DO is the tonic scale degree and TI is the leading tone scale degree, and the strongly implied harmony is I V I. RE and MI can imply the dominant and tonic chords respectively. So, short melodic segments like MI RE DO can imply harmony I V I or I6/4 V I. Notice that these harmonic implications come from step-wise scale movements rather than the more literal chord based melody of broken chords.

Not all melodies work by those methods, but many do, so the answer to your question is: some melodies are built from the pitches of chords.

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  • To complete the picture and have timbre and dynamics included rather than excluded, one could talk about pulse and meter, which give meaning and importance to pitches. And timbre and dynamics are an important part in forming a perception of pulse and meter. All transients actually. When a sound starts, when it ends, when it moves, all are rhythmic events. In my opinion, Western music theory and discourse focuses a lot on talking about pitch relationships, and maybe too little on what happens on the time dimension. Mar 13, 2023 at 14:24
  • Yes, but unrelated to the question asked. Mar 13, 2023 at 14:26
  • Of course it's related. OP asks about the elements of melody, and pulse and meter are very important elements. Sometimes even the only elements. Mar 13, 2023 at 14:28
  • I feel like there could be more about implied harmony in here, specifically that it’s not just about a melody made from arpeggiation. One quite clear example is a phrase ending with the leading tone followed by the tonic. Stepwise melodies that start with the root of a chord and go up or start with the fifth and go down also imply harmony strongly. I feel like a more complete picture of implied harmony would help the asker with their last question about notes vs chords. Mar 13, 2023 at 14:46
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    @ToddWilcox, I tried adding a little more to cover implied stepwise motion. Mar 13, 2023 at 15:36
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I wouldn't work too hard to derive "truths" from this website. It has a point to make, and there are some good aspects to that point, but it's a very simple point and it makes it in a conversational, not-very-careful way (and not entirely clearly either). It makes one indefensible overstatement (or "under-explanation"?), which you disprove by your question. The website itself isn't very valuable as a source for learning about music; people have been thinking (better) and writing (better) about these ideas for centuries. But it's worth discussing if only to clear up some of these limitations.

First, definitions. The website is using informal, conversational definitions, so let's use them as well. This is what most people in most contexts mean by these words:

  • note: This is a note: enter image description here. We could get really complicated and scientific about our definition, and talk about fundamentals and harmonics, but conversationally, we can talk about "a single note." A "tone," or "pitch," that we understand as a single unit. Many instruments play only one note at a time—as the human voice usually does (aside from some unusual techniques).
  • chord: This is a chord: enter image description here. Several "notes," happening at once—at the same moment in time. Chances are, they fit some recognized pattern, like say a major triad.
  • melody: enter image description here Most people use "melody" to mean "a series of 'notes' happening one after the other." Where chords look vertically, melody looks horizontally. It "connects the dots" from one note to another, across time, to make a recognizable "tune" (motif, theme, riff, lick...). "Melody" is often contrasted with "harmony":
  • harmony: In this clip: enter image description here I've added "harmony" to the "melody." The treble clef still holds single notes—"the melody"—while the bass clef accompanies it with "chords," a.k.a. "the harmony." This kind of conception differentiates between notes by role—why didn't we call the series of lowest notes a "melody"? Because that's how we're thinking of it, that's why. This analysis started by identifying a string of notes as "melodic," and then relegated other notes to a supporting role. This system makes analytic statements and assumptions. And it works for some music. (And even for "that kind of music," these words are only useful in casual talk; for in-depth analysis we might require more careful words like "voice," "harmonic," "tonal," "function," etc.)

Now, let's cut straight to the most problematic bit of the quote:

A note will have no characteristic when played on its own. However, when a chord is formed from a group of notes then this will form a certain feel of mood (E.g. happy, sad, bright or dark).

There are many problems with these two sentences. The second sentence makes assumptions about how certain chords make us feel. This kind of simple discussion can be useful when talking to kids—"How does this chord make you feel? happy? sad?"—but it doesn't hold up to a broader view of "all music." The ancient Greeks had a lot to say about how certain combinations of notes made people feel—warlike, amorous, peaceful, etc—and so do many other music-cultures. The problem is, they don't all agree. A given musical construct might carry an emotional payload, but that's culturally construed. There's nothing about the scientific distances between these pitches that is actually "sad."

Furthermore, it's pretty easy to argue with even within a music-culture. There are plenty of "happy" pieces in minor and vice versa. Even an overall "sad song" uses major chords as well as minor; it's what it does with them. There's are many, many posts on these topics already on this stack exchange; here's a search for "happy minor", and others could be just as fruitful.

But now let's assault the biggest mistake: "... a note will have no characteristic when played on its own." In fairness, I think the author is having trouble expressing what they really mean, and has also overstated their case. A more defensible (but clunkier) rewrite might be: "Within the Western tonal tradition, it's hard (although possible) for a single note to convey much emotion. You can do much more emotively by choosing how you harmonize it." That's fair. But I'm sorry, no, a single note does have "characteristics." Even setting aside hair-splitting arguments, we could stay with the author's intended meaning of "expressive impact," and still pack that into one note.

I could get out a violin and play you a single note—in fact, maybe I'll edit this post to prove it on video later—and I could make it "angry," "wistful," "playful," "tentative," "plaintive," etc. I can change the overall volume of the note and how long it lasts. I'm cheating a bit by picking an instrument that can do a lot to shape the note even after starting it—I can get louder and softer during the note; I can change the timbre by altering the weight or speed of the bow, making it "growly" or "breathy." I can use "vibrato," wiggling the pitch around but still counting it as the same "note."

So no, a note by itself is not helpless to convey meaning. You then extrapolate from the author's point about "notes" to what we can say about "melody." If an individual note carries no emotion, does that mean melodies can't convey emotion either? And your question proves the author's error, because yes, of course, there are many (memorably, famously) moving melodies. Maybe some of these rely for their power on the chords that they imply, but that's not the whole picture. You could play the theme from Schindler's List unaccompanied and make people cry, but you could also take the underlying chords and write a new, boring, banal melody to go with them. It's the large leaps in the theme that make it work.

And frankly, it's just insulting to monophony ("melody") to suggest that it's incomplete or incapable on its own. With apologies to Goria Steinem and Irene Dunn, a melody needs harmony like a fish needs a bicycle. First of all, if we step back and look at music across the globe, and across time, much of it is music in which we can't talk about this "harmony" thing anyway, or at least not in the same language. The vast majority of music across human experience has been monophonic—that is, one note at a time, a.k.a. "melody." We can't talk about "chords" with the traditional musics of much of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, indigenous Americas, etc. You can't talk about them in medieval chant. Even when European classical music started using "multiple notes at once," they didn't think about "chords" in the renaissance, or even all the time in the baroque, and even later. Instead they thought about "counterpoint," "voices," i.e. multiple "melodies happening at once. You can't talk about "chords" in a lot of art music from the twentieth century and ongoing—atonal music is often contrapuntal, or it's easier to talk about "pitch clusters" than chords. And the whole assumption that music does or should convey or cause a "mood" is not an underlying assumption of a lot of work.

So... where does that leave us? If the logic suggested by the website was:

  • notes can't convey mood
  • chords can
  • but melodies can convey mood
  • therefore... melodies must have chords in them?

... then we've reached a problematic conclusion because we started with a fallacy. A better flow might be:

  • notes can too convey mood
  • so can chords
  • melodies sure as heck can
  • and adding chords to them can help
  • and yes, as other answers here have shown, melodies can imply chords, or even yes, "contain" chords by sounding the notes of the chord one at a time.

But we should be careful about making any statements about what's true "of music" without defining how our conversation is limited, and very careful about drawing conclusions from writing that is not careful.

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    Seems to me the two groups of bullets at the end of this answer are all the answer really needs and the rest is just tedious. Mar 13, 2023 at 14:48
  • @ToddWilcox Heh, true. As usual I've let my answer get so long that it needed a "sum-up." Mar 13, 2023 at 14:51
  • You've nailed it with this rather verbose answer, possibly necessary in the circumstances! But +1 at least. If I'm not wrong, OP has a strange conception of what constitutes a note, and even a chord, so answering such a vague, inaccurately based, ill informed question isn't an easy job!
    – Tim
    Mar 13, 2023 at 16:18
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since a good melody does have a certain feel of mood, the melody is built from both notes and chords

No. A good melody may imply chords, meaning that hearing the melody alone is enough to invoke feelings in the listener's mind, as if the melody had been accompanied by backing chords. The same melody notes can plausibly be accompanied by many different chords, and such chord choice decisions belong to the art of "arranging".

A lot of modern pop melodies are colorless, odorless, tasteless, generic note salad along pentatonic scales, and they can be accompanied by just about any chords. This results from the melodies avoiding the use of pitches with strong harmonic implications, such as the leading tone, or chromatically altered notes. In my opinion, such tunes are not very melodic and the melodies are weak.

There are different opinions on how to define a "melody" to begin with. To me, a melody is any strong central musical idea which draws a listener's attention so effectively that they can remember it and maybe even try to reproduce the idea. A good melody doesn't need chords or even pitches. The opening stomp-stomp-clap rhythm of Queen's "We Will Rock You" is very melodic and catchy, and a lot of ordinary people can reproduce that musical idea by tapping, clapping, stomping, whistling, humming, etc. without any musical training. That's a sign of a good melody. (Someone might say that even lyrics would fit that definition... yes, why not. Good rap is melodic in many ways.)

How a bunch of lawyers and judges might define "melody" to decide a copyright dispute in a court of law, in case X in country Y in year Z, is a different question.

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  • Copyright doesn't seem to be at issue in the page that the question links to, but I would note that it's not necessarily important to define "melody" in the context of a copyright dispute. Copyright protects musical compositions generally, not only melodies.
    – phoog
    Mar 13, 2023 at 12:18
  • @phoog Yes, like I said copyright is a different question. Mentioned as a reminder and example of different perspectives and dimensions to the meaning of a concept and word like that. I also tried to say that even the legal aspect is subject to opinions and interpretations, which can vary in different places and times, and who is paying who, how much. Mar 13, 2023 at 12:23
  • I’m not seeing how coming up with your own definition of melody helps the asker better understand the quote in question. Mar 13, 2023 at 12:29
  • @ToddWilcox I tried to demonstrate, by example, that there can be different interpretations and definitions. Whatever is on the web page is someone's opinion, somewhere, sometime, for some purpose. I did not read the linked bage because this site is perfectly capable of containing a question like this. I hope the OP can now see that web page as an imperfect piece of human communication among the vast oceans of imperfect human communication out there. Like there's no single correct kind of music, there's no single correct way of talking about music. Mar 13, 2023 at 13:19
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    ...or we could stick to the question asked when it's a sensible question. Mar 13, 2023 at 14:12
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Yes and no. There's often the definition of melody as a serial progression of notes and harmony as notes being played in parallel. So if you imagine a chord as being 2 or more notes being struck at once, then no a melody is just single notes.

However practically speaking even if you just play a melody (succession of single note pitches), you still create harmonics when the last note still lingers around when the next one is being played (either as your strings still resonate when you pluck a new one or if the note is still in the air on in the heads of the listeners). So you still, at the very least play intervals that already have a characteristic and with progressions of intervals you might even play arpeggios or broken chords where you play the notes of a chord just after each other and not all at once.

So no you don't have to deliberately mix single notes with notes being played in parallel to create a melody, but it's very likely that you'll still be able to feel chords even in a progression of single notes.

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A melody is simply a musical "line", a collection of notes that are played sequentially as a cohesive musical thought. Almost any series of notes could be called a melody. A melody requires multiple notes played at different times.

A chord is multiple notes played together that are heard at the same time. Any collection of notes played simultaneously could be called a chord. A chord requires multiple notes played at the same time.

A melody may incorporate chords, playing some beats in multi-part harmony with more than one note, but it doesn't have to. A sequence of notes with none played together is a chordless melody. A melody is built from notes and may or may not have chords.

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There can be further subtleties. Although a melody often implies a harmony, different harmonies can color the same melody. As an example, take this stoke of genius by Schubert in the opening of the 2nd movement of his Piano Sonata in A Major, D.959:

Andantino from D.959

The melody starting in m.1 is harmonized in the minor, but when immediately repeated, starting in m.19, the same notes (with some added embellishment) are harmonized in the major. Rather than a mere repetition, we hear the theme in a new light—a sort of alter ego.

Source: ISLMP (Henle)

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Generally speaking, the main notes that are in a chord are reflected in a melody, and vice versa. As in, chord of C in a bar, melody notes are often (not always!) C, E or G. By main, I mean beat 1 and beat 3, usually. I've often said as much, in that if that doesn't happen, either the melody, or the chord/s at that point, are wrong!

It won't happen all the time - that's where the suspense or dissonance occurs, but if you examine 100 melodies, and their underlying chords, it'll hold true most of the time.

There will of course be those which don't. 'Laura' springs to mind. Although by changing the chords to several m9 instead of simple minors, it fits as above. Or, if you like, the 9th part completes the underlying basic triads. Moon River follows for 2 bars, then has (in key C) a B note held against an F chord - which theoretically shouldn't work - good ol' Hank! But the idea there, I guess, is to resolve in the very next bar.

The concept rings true also when jazzers 'play the changes'. The point there is they regard the chord in a bar as supporting certain notes, rather than others, and that's usually reflected in the chord-note match.

Even when a melody is re-harmonised, which is another favourite jazz trick, the same concept applies - although there's a lot of 'musical licence' with extended chords.

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All melodies have a harmonic basis.

Music is not just a collection of notes. Melodies have to have a harmonic basis, if they don't have the foundation of harmony then the melody is just an incoherent collection of notes.

The basics of harmony is a chord progression. You have a key, you start on the tonic chord and you have phrases (musical sentences) where you move to different chords in the progression. The movement is generally to the chord 4 steps forward, 1 step forward, or three steps backward.

Chords by themselves are pretty boring, so you add a melody to make it interesting. You can deduce the harmonic foundation of a melody by looking at how the notes jump.

For the most part, notes in melodies jump to and from chordal notes. SO for instance if you see the jump of a fifth up from F-C then that wants to tell you the chord has the notes of this bar in the melody has the notes F and C in it, You may then see a jump down a third from a C to an A. Then you know for certain the harmony of this part of melody is built on a F Major chord.

When you have a proper harmonic foundation then there a myriad of ways to make a melody interesting. There truly is a massive amount of literature in regards as to how make quality melodies.

For the most part, what makes good music or great music is the quality of the melody. You may hear a song and say to yourself 'man that is a catchy tune'. A catchy tune just being a quality melody.

Some of the ways melodies are made interesting are, for instance. Notes of Anticipation, Suspensions, Échappée, Upper-Auxiliary Notes, Lower-Auxiliary Notes, Accented Passing Tone, Non-Accented Passing Tone, Escape Tones, Appoggiatura and Acciaccatura

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    The entire history on non-Western and pre-Organum music would like to have a word with you.
    – Aaron
    Mar 15, 2023 at 7:50

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