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Nice tune, what's in it?

Last month, the idea of melody was presented. The definition given was: “a melody is a string of notes heard in succession within a rhythmic framework”. I’d like to continue this discussion, honing in on a few more specifics. The goal is to be able to listen with greater understanding. Many times, music can be heard as a story unfolding in the form of melodic dialogue (i.e. “phrases”). Just like having a dialogue with a friend, a musical dialogue will have a melodic question followed by a melodic response.

Let's hear a familiar piece which perfectly demonstrates many aspects of a melody the finale of Giacomo Rossini’s well-known Overture to William Tell. I believe one of the reason’s this piece is memorable is due to the composer’s mastery of rhythmic vitality. As rich as it is rhythmically, let's look at some melodic elements to enjoy the music from a different angle:


Sometimes when we listen, we made find ourselves tapping to the beat, or pulse, of the music. Taken a step further, notes which happen in between beats are often emphasized (i.e. “accented”); this effect is called syncopation.

Initially, you can feel the emphasis on the beat notably punctuated by the cymbals. When a climactic moment hits and the strings play higher, the reverse happens: the off-beats are emphasized by the strings instead (while the cymbals continue to play on the beat). Try holding still during this part!


A small collection of notes which may be repeated or form the basis of longer sections is called a motive. After the opening brass fanfare, the strings begin softly and energetically. Do the three notes which repeat again and again remind you of something? (Think of a horse’s gallop!)


The notes that we hear are called pitches. The pitches in a melodic line may stay the same, ascend, or descend. For the motive of the overture finale, the pitch is first repeated then ascending. The melodic response is repeated then descends. As the pitches move closely together, musicians call this movement stepwise motion, which means pitches move to their "next-door neighbors".

Melodic Contour

During the climatic, the pitches are spread further apart and ascend/descend by leap. Towards the end of the opening theme, many rapidly played notes are heard repeated in the violins. These faster notes serve as an elegant transition to the more lyrical section (which briefly appears once). Notice how this variation on the motive ascends and descends in the violins while keeping the basic melodic formula the same. As the pitches of a melody shift in direction, one may sense the larger picture of how it unfolds; this is called melodic contour.

Have you ever tried conducting while listening to music you love? If so, you may have gestured higher or lower depending on how the melody is moving. In the privacy of your home, perhaps you could be persuaded to listen to the opening minute of the piece again, using hand gestures to draw the contour of the melody.

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