I recently had a long discussion with my supervisor regarding the musicology of melody, which I can sum up as follows:

  1. Musicological studies of melody are not as rich and comprehensive as, say rhythm and harmony. In general, the theory is scarce.
  2. Much of the existing analyses have been speculative and inconclusive.
  3. The one theory of which there have been successful follow-ups when it comes to the study of melody is Leonard Meyer's theory of musical expectation.
  4. There is no general agreement as to how melodic structures are perceived as there generally is when it comes to harmony.

He's yet to share some references pertaining to this with me, so I thought I'd ask around here as well.

I'm a bit confused now as to how I can pursue this subject. I'm not a music scholar but I'm interested in resources related to musicology of melody as my research is on computational modelling of melody. I'm mainly looking for background literature, firstly to know what sort of musicological analyses of melody exist/are possible, and secondly what are the difficulties one faces when it comes to the musicological analysis of melody that are unique to this musical dimension unlike harmony and rhythm?

I understand that this question is very broad and does not address the musical tradition, style, and so on. Anything thoughts ranging from specific to general from those who are familiar with this subject would be greatly appreciated! Also, please do suggest if I can phrase my questions more meaningfully.

  • Of all the "pieces" that go into a musical work, to me melody is the most ineffable. Or the least effable, if you prefer. I'm not sure what studies of melody there may be out there. For actually doing a study, I could see a starting point could be to come up with a motif, say, that is played over a single chord (since the harmonic "foundation" matters). Listeners are asked to rate the motif along different emotional axes. Then one note of the motif is changed and it is re-rated. Repeat. Or something along those lines. Perhaps starting with simple melodic intervals and then getting more complex Jan 15, 2016 at 18:44
  • There are existing computer software programs that can compose a melody over a given chord progression. Band in a Box is the best example I can think of. It is oriented toward jazz. pgmusic.com
    – user1044
    Jan 16, 2016 at 3:26
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    I would suggest that you look for treatises on how to compose a melody. There are a lot of those out there. The reason I'm suggesting this is that theory always follows practice. If you define and understand some rules and formulas for composing a melody in a certain style, that could provide a basis for algorithms for analyzing melodies. But those rules will always be particular to the genre of music and the style period and place in history. Finally, any stated method will be highly subjective to the author.
    – user1044
    Jan 16, 2016 at 3:42
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    For instance, here are some good thoughts on how to compose a jazz melody. northernsounds.com/forum/showthread.php/…
    – user1044
    Jan 16, 2016 at 3:44
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    You could investigate Schenkerian analysis. http://www.schenkerguide.com/index.php Jan 17, 2016 at 19:04

1 Answer 1


From a "classical" perspective... I think you can find a lot of material on melody, but it won't be as neatly codified or as conveniently labeled as things are with modern harmony teaching. Maybe historic resources offer better insight into melody but aren't as codified as modern roman numeral analysis or Schenkerian analysis. Personally, I don't think this means the material is vague or less rich. It just isn't algorithm-ready (so to speak.) You have to approach the study of it differently.

Some suggested resources:

History of Melody by Bence Szabolcsi et al. Link: http://amzn.com/0214156176

Music in the Galant Style by Robert Gjerdingen Link: http://amzn.com/0195313712 Lots of melodic schemata described using scale degrees notation like ^6 ^5 ^4 ^3. Gjerdingen also offers interesting criticism of modern harmony teaching as well as Schenkerian analysis.

Figuring Out Melody by David Fuentes https://www.calvin.edu/music/faculty-staff/faculty.html?name=David-Fuentes-MUSC A complete how-to guide to writing a melody like J.S. Bach

Introductory Essay on Composition: the mechanical rules of melody by Heinrich Kock, translation by Nancy Baker https://www.google.com/search?tbo=p&tbm=bks&q=0300028148 This book is hard to obtain, but a key historic source

Strunk's Source Readings in Music History (Revised Edition) by Leo Treitler et al. Joseph Reipel: from Fundamentals of Music Composition, page 749 Link: http://amzn.com/0393037525 Reipel teaches how to write a minuet, examples all single melodic lines, super refined sensitivity to rhythm

The next two sources are really performance treatises, but they also deal melodic ornamentation.

On Playing the Flute by Johann Joachim Quantz et al. Link: http://amzn.com/1555534732

A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing (Oxford Early Music Series) by Leopold Mozart et al. Link: http://amzn.com/019318513X

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    I'd add Wallace Berry's Structural Functions in Music (amazon.com/Structural-Functions-Music-Dover-Books/dp/0486253848). The writing is a bit academic, but nowhere near as opaque as I used to see in Perspectives of New Music, and Berry does seem to have some good insights into how the various elements of music work and fit together.
    – user16935
    Jan 20, 2016 at 0:20
  • Very good and helpful! Apr 29, 2020 at 15:04

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