1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Melody

MELODY (Gr. μελωδία, a choral song, from μέλος, tune, and ᾠδή, song). In musical philosophy and history the word “melody” must be used in a very abstract sense, as that aspect of music which is concerned only with the pitch of successive notes. Thus a “melodic scale” is a scale of a kind of music that is not based on an harmonic system; and thus we call ancient Greek music “melodic.” The popular conception of melody is that of “air” or “tune,” and this is so far from being a primitive conception that there are few instances of such melody in recorded music before the 17th century; and even folk songs, unless they are of recent origin, deviate markedly from the criteria of tunefulness. The modern conception of melody is based on the interaction of every musical category. For us a melody is the surface of a series of harmonies, and an unaccompanied melody so far implies harmony that if itso behaves that simple harmonies expressing clear key-relationships would be difficult to find for it, we feel it to be, strange and vague. Again, we do not, feel music as melodious unless its rhythm is symmetrical; and this, taken together with the harmonic rationality of modern melody, brings about an equally intimate connexion between melodyon a large scale and form on a small scale. In the article on Sonata Forms it is shown that there are gradations between the form of some kinds of single melody like “Barbara Allen” (see Ex. 1) and the larger dance forms of the suite, and then, again, gradations between these and the true sonata forms with their immense range of expression and development. Lastly, the element that appears at first sight most strictly melodic, namely, the rise and fall of the, pitch, is intimately connected by origin with the nature of the human voice, and in later forms is enlarged fully as much by the characteristics of instruments as by parallel developments in rhythm, harmony and form. Thus modern melody is the musical surface of rhythm, harmony, form and instrumentation; and, if we take Wagnerian Leitmotif into account, we may as well add drama to the list. In short, melody is the surface of music.

We may here define a few technicalities which may be said to come more definitely under the head of melody than any other; but see also Harmony and Rhythm.

1. A theme is a melody, not necessarily or even usually complete, except when designed for a set of variations (q.v.), but of sufficient independent coherence to be, so to speak, an intelligible musical sentence. Thus a fugue-subject is a theme, and the first and second subjects in sonata form are more or less complex groups of themes.

2. A figure is the smallest fragment of a theme that can be recognized when transformed or detached from its surroundings. The grouping of figures into new melodies is the most obvious resource of “development” or “working-out” in the sonata-forms (see Ex. 2–7), besides being the main resource by which fugues are carried on at those moments in which the subjects and counter subjects are not present as wholes. In 16th-century polyphony melody consists mainly of figures thus broken off from a canto fermo (see Contrapuntal Forms).

3. Polyphony is simultaneous multiple melody. In 16th-century music and in fugue-writing every part is as melodious as every other. The popular cry for melody as an antidote to polyphony is thus really a curious perversion of the complaint that one may have too much of a good thing. Several well-known classical melodies are polyphonically composite, being formed by an inner melody appearing as it were through transparent places in the outer melody, which it thus completes. This is especially common in music for the pianoforte, where the tone of long notes rapidly fades; and the works of Chopin are full of examples. In Bach’s works for keyed instruments figures frequently have a double meaning on this principle, as, for instance, in the peculiar kind of counter-subject in the 15th fugue of the 2nd book of the Wohltemperiertes Klavier. A good familiar example of a simple melody which, as written by the composer, would need two voices to, sing it, is that which begins the second subject of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata (Op. 53, first movement, bars 35–42, where at the third bar of the melody a lower voice enters and finishes the phrase).

4 (a) Conjunct movement is the movement of melody along adjacent degrees of the scale.' A large proportion of Beethoven’s melodies are conjunct (see Ex. 2, fig. B).

4 (b) Disjunct movement, the opposite of conjunct, tends, though by no means always, to produce arpeggio types of melody, i.e. melodies which move up and down the notes of a chord. Certain types of such melody are highly characteristic of Brahms; and Wagner, whose melodies are almost always of instrumental origin, is generally disjunct in diatonic melody and conjunct in chromatic (Ex. 2, fig. C, is a disjunct, figure not forming an arpeggio).

For various other melodic devices, such as inversion, augmentation and diminution, see Contrapuntal Forms.

We subjoin some musical illustrations showing the treatment of figures in melody as a means of symmetry (Ex. 1), and development (Ex. 2–7), and (Ex. 8–13) some modern melodic transformations, differing from earlier methods in being immediate instead of gradual.  (D. F. T.) 

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