Written by Mete Bakircioglu
Welcome back to “The Shape of Music,” a five-part series where we take you through the magic of music. I’ll explain how music works and what makes it sound so good. Last episode we studied rhythm: the heartbeat of music. Follow along as we learn about melody, the tune that gets stuck in your head after you listen to a song.
Leonard Berstein, American composer, conductor, and pianist, once called melody the “meat and potatoes” of music. What he meant is that if music were a meal, melody would be the main course—the entrée. And that would mean rhythm is the plate, organizing the “meat and potatoes” so that it’s easy to consume. Let’s talk about a few of the places you hear our friend, melody.
Melodies have all sorts of functions: if you’ve ever had trouble falling asleep, a lullaby is a melody your parents might’ve played for you. My parents always remind me how stubborn I was to stay awake, until they played me a lullaby. That put me out like a light! And when you learned the alphabet, you probably did it by singing the ABCs, another melody. Besides these instances, you hear melody whenever you turn on the radio or sing a song.
Melody has two parts two it: rhythm and pitch. Rhythm is the space between notes; if you need a quick refresher, check out the last episode. Pitch is how low or high a sound is. A spaceship taking off has a low pitch, while a train whistle has a high pitch. Something really cool about pitch is that our voices are all programmed with it. As we grow up, the pitch of our voices change. Think about it: when you talk, you have a much higher pitch than when an adult talks.
Now that we can handle rhythm and pitch separately, let’s put them together to make melody. Check out this rhythm we looked at last episode. Sounds kinda boring, right? There isn’t much of a direction to it. Now let’s add some pitches. It sounds a lot more fun and guided! That’s the whole idea behind melody. It’s the friend who brightens the room; it’s the peanut butter to rhythm’s jelly.
In music, we organize pitches in groupings of usually seven distinct notes called scales. These scales are eight notes, and we call the space from the first to the eighth note an octave. I like to think of an octopus. Octopi have eight legs, and an octave has eight notes. Also, every pitch has a letter name so we can easily interpret it. This makes up what we’ll call: the musical alphabet. It’s the universal music language, which means musicians will understand it no matter where you go in the world. In our musical alphabet, we have seven basic notes to use as our color palette: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. We can make each of these seven notes a slightly lower or slightly higher pitch; we call it flat for low and sharp for high.
You can easily remember flat is low because the ground is below your feet and flat. To remember sharp think about how high mountain peaks are, and you’ll remember sharp is high.
These sharps and flats are called accidentals, and there are five of them. So in the entire musical alphabet, there are 12 unique notes: seven regular and five accidental (my personal favorite is E flat, listen to how colorful it sounds). In the next episode, we’ll discover more about these scales and how they give us different colors of sound. The hope is that by the type you reach the end of this series, you’ll be fluent in a completely new language: the language of music!
Listen to the Podcast!
Make sure to check out the podcast version of this episode on the website for a deeper review of melody! Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll continue your musical journey in the next episode, where we go over the keyboard—the next step to deciphering the magic of music.