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I have a set of basic questions regarding melody and I’m not formally trained in music but I want to expand my knowledge on this and other subjects in music. Please advise if any of my terminology can be improved or made more clear. I find this subject quite large and fascinating and to really get to the core of what I’m trying to learn may take a bit of back and forth if that's ok.

If we take Scandinavian folk music as an example, is an “explicit” melody (think row, row, row your boat gently down the stream) required for the song to be a proper/full/valid piece of music? Or can an “implicit” melody (one implied, hidden or embedded in the chord progression and/or bass line) suffice? Or is any kind of melody required at all?

Perhaps I should define here what I think a melody is. I understand melody as: “A sequence of notes played in a specific order that is memorable and recognizable as a separate element in a song. These notes are also easily understandable by the listener such that quite often it can be hummed or whistled at some later time after listening to the piece.”

This YouTube video provides Scandinavian folk songs. For me, this music is pleasant and nice to listen to but I am at a loss to detect an “explicit” melody in these songs. In fact, when I expect it to resolve to a specific note or chord it often doesn’t and surprises me in a good way. Is this a failing on my part (lack of melody detecting skill, or a cultural thing as I’m not Scandinavian) or is there really no “explicit” melody present in these songs?

Perhaps we could direct our attention to the first minute or so to make communication easier.

One aspect I attribute to melody is that it gives a song a certain “predictable structure”, which allows one to anticipate what comes next once it begins. If this is true, is non-predictableness (randomness) necessarily a bad thing in this genre? If, in fact, there is randomness going on in these songs, I rather like it.

[On a side note, I have no such failing in detecting predictable structures in American pop, rock, blues, etc. Even in some classical pieces I have no such failings. However, in some forms of jazz I detect no predictable structures at all and do not find that genre appealing.]

Any links to beginner-level material on this subject to help square these circles would be appreciated. Thanks for any help.

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    The fist minute of the example given has a fairly obvious melody in a dance-instrumental style with ornamentation and variation. It's probably not something most people would want to sing. In fact the video seems to continue in that style.
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Feb 1 at 23:05
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    I think it's not so clear what the real question is here. You seem motivated by your inability to follow the melody in your given example, but are you really asking- Is there a melody in the example given? (Yes) Is the melody repetitive and/or predictable? (Yes to repetitive, unclear to me on predictable) Is a melody required in this style of music? Should it be repetitive or predictable? Does it have to be?
    – Edward
    Commented Feb 1 at 23:31
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    I don't know how you define 'melody'. I hear one in the first minute.
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Feb 2 at 0:01
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    I feel like the answer that's really needed here is the answer to a different question: "What's the best way to engage with a musical culture that's unfamiliar to me?" And the answer would have a lot to do with looking for what's there rather than what's not, taking time to familiarize yourself with that music-culture's parameters, contextualizing the music-culture within the culture, and simply giving time for culture shock to wear off so you start to hear it "from within" rather than "from without." Feel free to open that question; I don't really see a duplicate pre-existing! Commented Feb 2 at 15:12
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    – Fastnlight
    Commented Feb 4 at 14:44

2 Answers 2

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There's definitely melody. It doesn't necessarily fall into neat 4 and 8-bar phrases, and it's not particularly singable, but those aren't required elements of 'melody'.

You say a melody should be 'easily understandable by the listener' and 'quite often it can be hummed or whistled'. Well, 'easily' is subjective. Can you cope with the 'Sailor's Hornpipe' as melody? The Scandinavian example is very similar. It's not just a sequence of strummed chords, it's not just a drone, it's not just a rhythm. What DO we call that other element other than 'melody'? Though perhaps it isn't a very 'melodic' one (he said, mischievously!)

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    @Steve The fact that you are not able to sing it, doesn't mean that it's not a melody. It may only mean that these melodies and structures are not familiar to your music culture, so you fail to "recognize" them as melody, but they definitely are. Most sacred vocal music in the middle age didn't have a metric structure as tight as we are normally used to (bars of equal length, structures of 2^x bars), but they often had just one voice, and that was clearly a melody. Commented Feb 2 at 1:43
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    I upvoted this answer even though I was easily able to sing the melody in the first minutes of the video. It doesn’t have a wide range or very difficult leaps (I do have some voice training so maybe singable for me doesn’t mean singable for everyone). It’s WAY more singable than any of the advanced aural skills excerpts I have to sight sing tomorrow morning. They are taken from works by composers like Tchaikovsky and Borodin and Stravinsky. That’s my definition of not particularly singable. Commented Feb 2 at 3:39
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    I think there are actually two 8 bar sections with a three bar extension in the second half for 19 bars before it repeats. That’s not super common in many forms of folk music but not unheard of and also quite common in the late classical and romantic periods. It certainly doesn’t make it any less melodic. If you listen and count you should hear a weak cadence sort of like a half cadence at 8 bars and then an interrupted cadence around bar 15-16 before a final cadence around 19. The first theme of Mozart symphony 40 is 19-20 bars and lots of people can sing that. Commented Feb 2 at 3:45
  • One verse of “Angels We Have Heard on High” is 21 bars long and tons of amateurs sing that every December. Commented Feb 2 at 4:10
  • @ToddWilcox The "variations on a theme [not] by Haydn" is made of 5+5 bars :-) In reality, many traditional folk music uses odd bar counting (and even odd meters at some points in the structure). It probably depends on the origin (and I suppose that some styles/countries present more/less elements like these than others), but in my experience I noticed that it usually happened for songs that gave more importance to the lyrics (thus changing the structure to follow metrics) than harmonic rhythm and standard 2^n structures, which is quite common in popular culture (and, interestingly, in opera). Commented Feb 2 at 4:15
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You definition of 'melody' is too limited, particularly your requirement that a listener should be able to hum or whistle it. Take for example the beginning of Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben:enter image description here

It's undeniably a melody, but probably nobody who's not a trained or talented singer would be able to sing it, let alone hum or whistle it. Even trained singers would have trouble with the almost three-octave range.

The tune from your example is not one of those un-singable/hummable melodies. It's instrumental music and not really written for singing, but it's certainly possible for even an untrained singer to sing it.

What might be confusing you is the fact that the melody doesn't neatly fit into the 4 or 8 bar phrases you might be used to from rock/pop music, but that's often the case with folk music. There is absolutely no randomness in the music, it neatly fits a structure: A-B-B repeated C-B-B repeated. The phrase boundaries are a bit ambiguous but A is about 9 bars long and B and C 5 bars. Melodically it doesn't do anything unusual compared to other European folk forms, the fact that it doesn't always go the way one would expect, is normal. Music that always goes exactly the way you are expecting is trite and boring. There are only three harmonies: tonic, dominant, subdominant, also very much standard.

If you can hear melodies in rock/pop but not in this music than it can only be due to your unfamiliarity with music outside these styles.

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  • Ganked the bottom note of the cello part (it's way out of my range), but I was otherwise able to sight-sing it despite the tenor clef usage.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Feb 2 at 16:49
  • @Dekkadeci You're probably either trained or talented. There's no way I could sing it.
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Feb 2 at 17:07

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