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What is it about the melody of a song that makes it unique from the harmony?

To illustrate, if I hear a men's quartet sing a song I've never heard before in four part harmony where the melody is not necessarily the highest part and the singers make no effort to make the melody stand out through dynamics or other techniques, I am fairly certain that, with a little concentration, I would be able to pick out which notes belong to the melody and which notes are harmony.

There are many ways to describe the difference between melody and harmony subjectively. For instance, the melody is the "main part" or the "foundation" of the music and the harmony "complements" the melody.

There must be some objective differences between melody and harmony in music theory, right?

marked as duplicate by Dave, leftaroundabout, Shevliaskovic, Richard, Dom theory Sep 24 '17 at 23:41

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  • @hillin It's very similar but I think that question is about practice and my question is about theory. – cambunctious Sep 22 '17 at 2:22
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    It's more complicated than your description. There is no reason why there should be only one melody playing at a time. Often (in classical music at least) there are several, and you can hear all of them independently and simultaneously. Some of that is a learned skill, of course - and never getting enough exposure to the musical genre to learn it might explain why some people "don't like classical music." – user19146 Sep 22 '17 at 4:55
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According to this site, melodies are defined as "a memorable series of pitches". Melodic contour is the shape of a melody—the rises and falls. This rising and falling is what gives the melody is memorability, emotion, and distinction.

Within a melody, there are two types of movement—conjunct and disjunct movement. Conjunct motion is when a note in a melody goes up or down to the next note in the scale, and disjunct movement is the opposite; when the melody skips to notes higher or lower. Most melodies are a combination of the two. Melodies also tend to land on "important notes" in the scale (i.e. tonics, dominants, etc.).

Harmonies are generally (if not always) made to accompany the melody. The melody, because of the way it's built, will always stick out, but won't necessarily feel "complete", so to speak. They tend to follow the chords and the beat closer, while the melody tends to be freer.

Harmonies are either countermelodies (Bach's Fugue in D Minor being my favorite example) or chords (basically any song ever released).

The main difference between the two? Melodies are all about shape, range and movement, while harmonies are coordinate: they team with the melody to supplement the melody and create better sounding, more complex music by enhancing fluidity, mood, and depth.

  • A melody can be a harmony but not all harmonies are melodies(melodius) :-) . Venn Diagrams to the rescue! – Carl Witthoft Sep 22 '17 at 12:25
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Sometimes the melody is distinct from the accompaniment. Sometimes it's not obvious. For instance, I've recently been transcribing some 1960s songs, performed by a vocal group, for a solo singer. When I got a sight of the published song copy, I discovered that I had picked the wrong vocal line as melody on a number of occasions. I suppose the test of a great arrangement is that any one of the voices could stand alone as a melody! This happens more often in 'classical' than pop/rock though. And, of course, there's nothing WRONG with writing a homophonic accompaniment supporting a single melodic line.

To answer your question - no, there's not general rule. When you hear a song where more than one voice might be considered the melody, perhaps there ARE two melodies. That's fine.

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In tonal music, the melody is likely to gravitate towards a tonic. Although a voice in the harmony can double that tonic (in unison or at the octave), most of the voices will not be on the tonic when the melody comes to rest on the tonic, and that gives the listener a valuable hint. Rules restricting the overlapping of voices, and the use of parallel, contrary and oblique harmony can help 'isolate' the voices. Nevertheless, a composer/arranger's desire to make everything as interesting as possible can play hell with our perception of the melody, and the performers' awareness and control of dynamics becomes critical if the melody is to stand out.

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