I keep hearing about sequences. I know that there's both harmonic and melodic sequences. I am familiar with harmonic sequences I believe they're also called "basso ostinato" where you play a repeating loop in the bass, for example in Canon in D.

But what about melodic sequences. What are they usually used for? I'm not sure if they're supposed to loop also I'm not sure how they differ from a motif or just a basic melody.


Ostinato is different than melodic or harmonic sequence.

Both involve repetition of material but in different ways. Ostinato would repeat a bass as the entirety of the formal theme. - not just a melodic segment, but all the harmonic material. Also the repeats do not shift the music around harmonically. It's the same harmony over and over. It's a form of theme and variation.

Sequence take a short segment of music and repeats it with some kind of harmonic transposing.

How are melodic sequences used?

As the linked wiki article explains there are many kinds of sequence. But it may be helpful to know that the commonest appearance of sequence in the common practice era will display both harmonic and melodic sequence...

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Notice in that example from Bach (taken from the wiki article) the material is sequence both harmonically and melodically. I would say this is the typical way it is handled.

The fact is, when you sequence a passage by shifting it up or down by step, it simultaneously is a harmonic sequence. Harmonic and melodic sequence devices can be used independently, but it is very common to see then used simultaneous as just two sides of the same coin.

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  • I see so it's just a pattern/motif that has a slight variation at each measure. – user34288 Feb 14 '19 at 16:57
  • This is a diatonic sequence so the exact steps sizes (half or whole steps) change with each of the three sequences, but otherwise the melodic pattern is not changed. Look at only the top line, the melodic steps are: up 2, down 4, up a third. That patterns is sequenced without variation three times. In this tonal style you wouldn't really consider the half/whole step changes which make it stay diatonic to be variations. Instead of calling it 3 small variations, call it 3 sequences. – Michael Curtis Feb 14 '19 at 17:19
  • That wording is just to make yourself clear to others. I think you understand the concept. Variation suggests some essential change or decoration to the melody, or a relative change in harmony. – Michael Curtis Feb 14 '19 at 17:22

I'll just state my own experience with melodic patterns and sequences. A few years ago I found a copy of " Modern Improvising" by Leon White in an old used bookstore. I took it home and started working through the book and got to the section on Melodic Patterns, this book has 119 of them. I practiced religiously, 3 or 4 patterns a week, and within 2 or 3 weeks the melodic patterns began coming to mind whenever I would improvise on stage. Because I became very familiar with the sound of each pattern, I would start to hear them as useful parts in my head as I'm playing. It is kind of like learning new words I can use to communicate what I would like to say. The patterns can be used to build sequences if you choose but they are also useful as stand alone patterns. Additionally, practice of the patterns helps a lot with manual dexterity and alternate picking if you are playing guitar, and the rhythm of each pattern can help improve problems one might have with timing. For me it has been a win/win/win situation

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  • what would make a pattern into a sequence? – user34288 Feb 15 '19 at 16:32
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    @foreyez- A pattern would be a series of notes put together to make a short melody which can be used by itself or inserted in side a larger melodic line. Sometimes they are used in a sequence where the same interval step pattern is applied followed by moving a step higher (ascending) or lower (descending) a selected distance up or down the scale. The" pattern" is repeating itself in a chosen "sequence" either ascending or descending the scale. Kind of like using words to build a sentence. – skinny peacock Feb 15 '19 at 22:51
  • ok if I understand that right a sequence contains multiple patterns. and each pattern is slightly altered. – user34288 Feb 15 '19 at 22:58
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    @foreyez- Motifs are usually altered slightly, whereas patterns maintain the same interval step pattern, but when used in sequences, move up or down using the next chosen scale degree as the first note of the pattern played in it's next repetition. It was a little bit confusing for me when I first got started with patterns but after working with them a few weeks, I was able to see the differences between patterns and Motifs – skinny peacock Feb 15 '19 at 23:19

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