What Is Melody? How Is It Different From Harmony?


We’ve all had a song that gets stuck in your head. But what is that part that you can’t shake and can’t help but sing along to? That's the melody! What is melody in music? The melody is usually the most important and identifiable part of a song, and most of us can pick out a melody without much trouble. But what is melody, and why is it special? We’ll go into a brief overview of the melody definition, how it’s different from a harmony, and how to identify it.


What Is Melody? Melody Definition and Overview

A melody in music is a simple collection of musical notes that is sonically pleasing. Musical compositions can be collections of several melodies that are woven together with other components to make the piece more complex. Melodies are also unique, though some can sound similar to each other. A melody is usually simple and can repeat throughout a song. In modern pop music, melodies can be identified in a chorus or verse and are carried throughout the song to connect the various parts.


How Can You Pick Out the Melody?

Chances are, you’ll be able to identify a melody by listening to the song. Our ears are naturally able to hear higher pitches better than lower pitches, and as such, many songs are constructed so the melody is played at a higher pitch than the other elements of the song. However, this is not always the case, since songs are unique and there are no strict rules for melodies in musical compositions.

A composition is made up of parts, with the melody being supported by other elements like chords, harmonies, and rhythm. Think of a melody like the leader of the song. It should be part of the song that jumps out most clearly and guides the rest of the composition. The melody should something you're able to easily pick out over the other components.


What Are Some Melodies You Know?

Melodies are everywhere, and there are tons of simple melodies that we all recognize in addition to the ones we hear in our favorite music. For example, when we sing the Happy Birthday song, we're singing a melody.

Children's songs are great examples of simple melodies. Hot cross buns, hickory dickory dock, and twinkle twinkle little star are all simple melodies that can easily be played and identified.

To understand melodies, you can also consider some of your favorite songs. Let's use one of my all time favorites as an example; Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody." If you have heard this song before, sing along to it now; what part comes to mind? You're probably singing along to the chorusOh I wanna dance with somebody/feel the heat with somebody/ etc. You hear that melody in the very first lyrics of the song as well. If you haven't heard this song, first of all, I recommend you look it up, but you can apply this tactic with any one of your favorite songs to help you understand melodies. 


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How Does a Melody Work Within a Song?

What is the melody of a song? As I mentioned, a melody of a song is one of the most important parts, but it’s only one part. A full musical composition has many parts and may consist of a melody, harmonies, and more.

Think of the children’s song hot cross buns, one of our examples of a simple melody. Many children learn to play this song on instruments when they’re learning about music. Students can play this song at different octaves or pitches at the same time to create a harmony. Building upon a melody with more elements like this would eventually create a more complex musical composition.

This same concept applies when musicians and songwriters create a song or composition. Songs often begin with a melody, and have additional components like harmonies, and rhythm. 


What Is the Difference Between Melody and Harmony?

Now we know the melody music definition, but how does it compare to harmony? A harmony is when multiple notes are stacked on top of each other to create a unique sound. Harmonies have two or more sounds played simultaneously, and the result should be sonically pleasing, and the sounds should complement one another. The main difference between harmonies and melodies is that a harmony builds upon an already existing melody, and a harmony needs a melody to exist.

When you’re listening to your favorite music, it’s worth it to try to pick out the melody. You can train your ear to hear them better and identify the melody amongst the other musical components. Melodies can be simple or complex, and they are a part of the essentials of music as well as our everyday lives. So, next time that song is stuck in your head, you’ll know why.


What's Next?

Now that you know definition of melody, are you interested in learning about songwriting? Don't forget the lyrics! Learn all about tone words, iambic pentameter, romantic poetry, and imagery to hone your poetry skills.

One of the most recognizable classical music melodies around is the opening flutter of Beethoven's Für Elise. Find out how this iconic piano piece was discovered and why Für Elise remains so popular to this day.

For some more fun music history, check out our articles on the history of hip hop and how the Moonlight Sonata got its name.


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About the Author

Carrie holds a Bachelors in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, and is currently pursuing an MFA. She worked in book publishing for several years, and believes that books can open up new worlds. She loves reading, the outdoors, and learning about new things.

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