I noticed that when there's a new chord, the melody is usually one of the chord tones. Then the melody goes off on its own and usually then transitions to another chord tone when the harmony changes yet again.

I'm interested in different ways of achieving this transition, and other creative ways of weaving in melody with harmony. If so is there a name or keyword for this study.. for the way melody works. for example, harmonic or melody analysis or function, or whatever the scientific name is. I'd just like to research this topic further.

  • "is there a name or keyword for this study" - no, because the subject is far too broad to have a one-word name. Not to mention that there is no "rule" that says "music" must have either a melody or harmony, and a lot of music has neither.
    – user19146
    Aug 5, 2017 at 3:42
  • @alephzero - after racking my brain, I need some examples from 'a lot of music', 'cos I couldn't find examples where melody wasn't included in the underlying harmony. Surely if that was the case, either the chord or the melody line would be wrong?
    – Tim
    Aug 5, 2017 at 12:53
  • @Tim, it depends on your definition of "non-chord tone". For example, the Fire Emblem main theme's second bar has either a IVmaj7 harmony or a IV harmony against Mi in the melody (e.g. in G major, that's a Cmaj7 chord or a C chord with a B on top) depending on whether you think the melody has an accented non-chord tone or not.
    – Dekkadeci
    Aug 5, 2017 at 15:03

2 Answers 2


I'm interested in...creative ways of weaving in melody with harmony.

Consider the following quote and whether it applies to your interest:

The process of creating melody, during the period we are now considering, is hardly to be separated from that of creating harmony. Not only is it extremely rare that a composer first writes a melodic phrase without reference to its harmonic background, but melodies are most commonly derived from harmonic patterns chosen in advance.

I think it is applicable. The source? Counterpoint by Walter Piston. This quote is from the third chapter The Harmonic Basis which includes an overview of all the non-chord tones. Other chapter titles include Melodic Curve, Melodic Rhythm, Harmonic Rhythm, and Motive Structure. The focus is on 18th century music: Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, but also some 19th century composers. In other words it's the common practice era that I think you are interested in rather than Palestrina and the 16th century. It contains no Fux, no species counterpoint, no rules. There are over 300 musical examples and almost all of them are from actual repertoire.

The bulk of the book gets into truly independent lines and that may go beyond the chords plus melody part of your question. But the first four chapters are a great discussion of melody and the interplay of melody and harmony. The chapter on harmonic rhythm includes chord symbol analysis for all examples. Overall there is a much more integrated discussion of melody/harmony/rhythm that you will get from a typical harmony textbook. I think you will like that.

Am I suggesting the topic keyword is counterpoint? To some extent yes, but I wouldn't get hung up on any single term. Avoid getting trapped in a counterpoint/harmony or melody/chord dichotomy. Glean what helps you from multiple subject areas.


I don't believe this notion has an agreed-upon formal definition, but the best term I've heard to describe it is 'melodic complexity.' Melodic complexity falls under the domain of composition. For example, putting the melody on the 1st, 3rd, or 5th of a chord is typically considered not very complex. But putting the melody on the 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th is considered more complex. This is different from complex harmonies, like Cmin-Dbmaj-Gbmaj-A7-Dmaj-F7-Bbmaj. If you wrote the melody to be the 3rd of each chord of the preceding progression, then you would have a song that is harmonically complex but melodically simple. (In a jazz composition class, I remember being taught that the strongest notes for the melody are the 3rd and the 13th, but this is a separate issue from complexity.)

  • So in jazz theory a melody based on tones beyond the simple triad would be called 'complex' even if the rhythm was simple half notes and moved mostly step-wise? Do I understand correctly? Aug 17, 2017 at 6:05
  • @MichaelCurtis, yes that's exactly right. Let's say the line has the 11th, 13th, and then 9th but is whole notes as you've said. This line is melodically complex but rhythmical simple. This isn't an accepted term as far as I know, but it's a term I heard Bill Charlap use once. I think Charlie Parker might have also used it in a Downbeat interview where he's allying about playing the higher extensions of a chord.
    – jdjazz
    Aug 17, 2017 at 11:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.