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When more than one note is playing, it probably is a chord. But can the melody section have two or more notes, being played simultaneously?

EDIT: I mean for a single instrument whose focus is either melody or chords, could the melody part have simultaneous notes at any point? (Eg right-hand piano notes).

  • So you are only talking about monophonic instruments? – Keiwan May 29 '16 at 9:53
  • @Keiwan No, this is in context of a piano. Basically, is melody a succession of single notes or it can have (at times) multiple nodes being played simultaneously? – goelakash May 29 '16 at 10:37
  • I hope the edit to my answer provides a good example for what you are asking. Let me know if not :) – Keiwan May 29 '16 at 10:52
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Yes, it's called Polyphony (if I understood you correctly this is what you mean). This is when multiple lines of melody are played simultaneously. You can pretty much pick anything by Bach and get a good example of polyphony. Or Rachmaninoff's second sonata... there are numerous more examples. It's actually not that rare.

As an example (not for polyphony) but for a harmonic progression which contains the melody take a look at this excerpt from Rachmaninoffs sonata 2 (the right hand):

enter image description here

  • I am trying to analyse MIDI files, that show notes (like a piano roll). If I am able to interpret the image correctly, the upper bars mean melody (the treble clef) ? If yes, so looking at the bars of melody, it seems that, yes, some notes do occur simultaneously in melody as well. Am I right? – goelakash May 29 '16 at 17:48
  • Essentially, yes. – Keiwan May 29 '16 at 19:29
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If I'm understanding the question correctly... generally no, sometimes yes.

Generally No

Take Debussy's Claire de Lune...

Debussy Claire de Lune

The melody is primarily in the right hand, doubled by the same line a third below.

If you were asked to analyze this piece and identify the melody, you would single out the top line only (not the doubled thirds). This is because:

  1. In terms of acoustics, the top notes are going to be more prominently heard than any of the inner lines. You wouldn't listen to this piece and identify the 3rd below, for instance, as being the main melody line. It just doesn't stick out like the top line does. And it's generally important to clearly hear the melody as a listener because it is often the basis for later musical development.
  2. The linear nature of melody. Melody is considered a linear element, and once you start to include simultaneous doublings of various intervals as part of that melody, you're introducing horizontal/harmonic elements which directly goes against this linear nature. Melody has a flow (even choppy, aggressive melodies) which contributes to the ongoing continuation of a piece of music. Vertical elements tend to be there to support this flow like little aural scaffolds.

Which leads to:

  1. Using melody for compositional development. In vast amounts of music, melody is the key to the development of a composition. A brief melody line can later be transformed via inversion, or retrograde, or to new keys, or in many other ways. This both moves the music along and helps to keep it from descending into total chaos. If, in the Debussy example, the melody always had to appear in 3rds (because it was introduced that way in the beginning and identified as the "official" melody), then you're going to be limiting what the composer can do later on with that melody. It also would enforce an entire piece to be played with those thirds repeating ad nauseum. Repetition is great, but nothing but repetition doesn't make for a well-developed piece of music (unless you're taking about minimalism).

Now yes, those 3rds are noticeable and prominent in the beginning, but depending on how they're used later on (I haven't personally analyzed this far), they could easily be considered a motif or a harmonic motif. Something which can be referenced now and then, and will be pleasantly recognizable to the listener, but doesn't define every single note of the melody.

Sometimes Yes

Is it impossible for a melody to contain more than one line? No. As one of the other answers mentioned, there is polyphony, which is multiple simultaneous lines at one time. This is most obvious in music of the Renaissance, however; not all polyphonic works have equally important melodies within the hierarchy of the composition. Contrapuntal works can have an established melody stated at the beginning of the composition, while a secondary counter-melody is later introduced underneath. Analyzing these types of compositions require taking into account the specific techniques used, the time period... and a little bit of personal interpretation.

20th/21st century works also are varied enough that it would be difficult to claim there are no examples - outside of pure, rhythmically independent polyphonic works - that can't claim to have more than a single line melody. Once you get into music that might only have rhythms and a couple intervals as a "melody", you're into completely different territory.

So, when else would this be a yes?

Identifying a specific melody in an academic analysis is often different than using the term "melody" in practice. Let's say you were in an orchestra rehearsal. You're playing a piece that has very delineated melody lines and accompaniment. Something's gone wrong, the conductor stops everyone, and tells only those with the melody line to play. The conductor is probably not literally asking for only the top line to play (and you might not necessarily know what notes some other part/section is playing anyway), just for everyone who has a similar melody that plays together at the same time to rehearse a section.

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You could be talking about HARMONY. Where two or more voices or instruments are often playing the same timing, but different notes.It doesn't even have to be simultaneous notes, listen to some fugues. Yes, often these notes are contained within the chord at that moment, usually a third or a fifth apart. They will blend with each other. African unaccompanied music, pop music and certainly most 'classical' music contains loads of examples. You can't fail to have heard lots in most kinds of music.

  • But it is only possible with multiple instruments, right? I mean would a single instrument's tune, playing two or more notes simultaneously at some point, get classified as part of the melody? – goelakash May 29 '16 at 9:18
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    @goelakash - still not crystal clear. On instruments which can play more than one note, such as piano, guitar, harp, certainly a melody could be, and often is, played with two or more notes. What point am I missing? – Tim May 29 '16 at 9:47
  • Yeah, thats what I am asking. Basically, is melody a succession of single notes or it can have (at times) multiple nodes being played simultaneously? – goelakash May 29 '16 at 10:35
  • @goelakash - you mean notes rather than nodes? – Tim May 29 '16 at 10:55
  • yeah, notes. Sorry for the typo. – goelakash May 29 '16 at 17:42

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