Melody and Notation
D. L. Stieg

In the simplest sense, and in the sense in which the term is commonly understood, a melody is a tune or a song. In a technical sense, a melody is a sequence of notes, sounded one at a time and in succession, that is defined by the pitches and rhythms of those notes. In a more specific sense, and in order to distinguish between melodies and monophonic (one note at a time) parts of ensemble arrangements, the definition of melody can be narrowed by the inclusion of other important characteristics of a melody. A melody must convey an unambiguous sense of key, and must have some semblance of musical form and musical development, and must therefore make musical sense when sounded alone and unaccompanied.

Most musical instruments, including the human voice, are monophonic, and are therefore capable of sounding only one note at a time. Singers and players of monophonic instruments have two basic choices regarding the performance of music. They can either sing and play melodies, or they can join forces with others and create more complete sounding music in the form of monophonic parts ensemble arrangements. Monophonic ensemble parts that are sounded together with a melody are more commonly referred to as harmony parts (as in vocal harmonies), bass parts or bass lines (the lowest pitched part of an ensemble arrangement), interior parts (as in four part arrangements with the melody in the highest pitched part), or soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts (as in choral arrangements). Ensemble parts can and should have a melodic quality about them, since this makes for a livelier and more interesting interaction among the parts. Ensemble parts are seldom entirely melodic in character throughout an arrangement, since their construction is governed to a large extent by the fact that their primary function is harmonic (filling in the notes of the chord) rather than melodic.

Since most instruments are monophonic, the notation of music consists for the most part of the representation in written form of melodies and monophonic parts of ensemble arrangements. Choral scores, orchestral scores, and brass band scores, for example, all consist of vertically conjoined monophonic parts, with the conjunction indicating that the parts are sounded simultaneously. Polyphonic instruments like the piano and the guitar are the obvious exception to the rule of monophonic notation. However, the notation for polyphonic instruments, like the notation for monophonic parts arrangements, is similarly based on vertical conjunction, in that simultaneously sounded notes are vertically aligned on the same staff.

The fact that musical notation consists for the most part of the representation of melodies in written form is well demonstrated in the case of songs, which are normally expressed in written form by a form of notation called a lead sheet. In its most basic format, which is commonly used for songs that predate the mid-20th century, a lead sheet consists solely of the staff notation of the melody of the song together with the lyrics. Chord symbols outlining the harmonic rhythm (the chords and the timing of the changes of chords) for an accompaniment are sometimes included above or below the melodic notation. Lead sheets for songs that postdate the mid-20th century typically include chord symbols as well as a complete piano or guitar accompaniment that is vertically conjoined with the melodic notation. In any case, the primary focus of a lead sheet is on the melody, and also on the apparent paradox given by the fact that a strict interpretation of the notation for a melody generally produces an unmusical rendition of that melody.

An ensemble part or the melody line in an ensemble arrangement must be interpreted fairly strictly to ensure a synchronized ensemble sound, especially when there are multiple singers or players for each part. But a strict interpretation of the lead sheet notation for a melody is generally ineffective because solo melodies are brought to life and rendered in a musical fashion by means of a variety of nuances. Three of the most commonly used nuances are embellishment notes, patterns of emphasis and phrasing, and rubato (rhythmic give and take). While it is theoretically possible to express nuances accurately in melodic notation, the resultant complexity of the notation would greatly diminish its usefulness. The lead sheet notation for the melody of a song, and in a larger sense the notation of any solo melody, is therefore usually only an approximation of a musically effective rendition of that melody. In the all-important matter of rendering a solo melody musically by reading beyond the notation, and by employing various nuances sensibly and effectively, the singer or player is generally left to his or her own devices.

The fact that solo melodic notation must be transcended rather than strictly interpreted is less a burden than an opportunity for self-expression, especially in view of the fact that musicians are usually naturally disposed toward rendering melodies in their own unique interpretive style. The human voice, for example, is capable of an uncommonly wide array of nuances in rendering a melody. Interestingly enough, although complicated and elaborate vocal interpretations of melodies can only be expressed approximately in notation, they can be imitated exactly reasonably easily by using the most important and the most amazing musical instrument of all the human ear. Children learn to sing intuitively and in an imitative fashion. Non-classical singers and instrumentalists commonly develop their skills and their musical instincts in much the same way by listening and by imitating.

This learning path, which is an essential component of the informal oral tradition of learning and teaching music, exists quite apart from a theoretical understanding of music. Together with the potential for musical growth given by experimentation and improvisation, imitative learning accounts for the fact that a singer or instrumentalist can have considerable skill at singing or playing music, and can have a well developed instinctual feel for music, despite a total lack of any formal knowledge of music, and despite a total lack of familiarity with musical notation. Ironically, even though it can be accomplished intuitively by simply listening to music, the development of a good musical ear and good musical instincts is of such great importance that the goal of becoming an accomplished musician cannot be achieved otherwise, however much theoretical knowledge or technical skill is acquired.