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The Elements of Melody

Aim: What fundamental elements do composers use to create great melodies?
Summary: Students investigate rhythm patterns, melodic contour, and form within melodies, and create their own melodies using these elements.
Standards: National 1, 2, 4, 7; NYC 1, 2, 3, 5
Vocabulary: contour, form, pattern, phrase, rhythm

In language, letters, words, and phrases provide the building blocks for communication. In music, composers create melodies using rhythmic patterns, melodic contour, and phrasing as building blocks. The balance of repetition and melodic surprises takes musicians and the audience on an exciting journey through the music.

Discover Rhythmic Patterns

  • Sing and review the melody for “Ode to Joy” or using the audio track “Ode to Joy” (vocal part).
  • Establish a steady beat in your feet, speaking the lyrics in rhythm, without pitch.
  • Next, clap the rhythm of the lyrics as you keep the steady beat in your feet.
    • When a series of notes and rests repeats, it forms a rhythmic pattern.
    • Do you see any repeating patterns?
    • How many times do these patterns repeat?
    • Why do you think Beethoven chose to include repetition and patterns in his melody?
  • Try this activity with “Come to Play,” “New World” Symphony, and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
  • Name that pattern: Show several rhythmic patterns from the Link Up repertoire or make up your own. As a class, speak, clap, or play each pattern. Then, play one of the patterns and have students identify which pattern is being performed. Students may also take turns leading this activity.
  • Compose your own rhythmic patterns: Using the “Ode to Joy” and “Come to Play” rhythms in Melodies Are Made of Patterns (PDF), have students arrange and perform their own rhythmic patterns.

Explore Melodic Contour

Every melody has a contour: the line or shape that is created by the series of pitches as they go up and down.

  • Look at the melodic contour of “New World” Symphony.
  • Sing the melody using a neutral syllable, solfège, or note names. As you sing, trace the shape of the melody with your finger in the air, or draw the shape on a tablet or paper.
    • Notice when the melody moves up or down or stays the same.
    • Notice when the melody moves by step or by leap.
    • Add movement to illustrate the steps and leaps.
  • Try this activity with additional pieces of Link Up repertoire, including “Ram Tori Maya,” “Ode to Joy,” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
  • Working in pairs, ask one student to “act out” a melody silently with body movement. The movement can include up and down motion, steps and leaps, and varying speeds. Ask the other student to follow the “conductor’s” melodic contour by singing or playing the melody on pitched percussion or recorder. Ask students to switch roles and repeat the activity.

Explore the Taal in “Ram Tori Maya”

The taal (“clap” in Sanskrit) is a metric cycle with a specific number of beats—from 5 to 16—that recur in the same pattern throughout a piece. The taal for “Ram Tori Maya” is called Deepchandi (pronounced “DEEP-chun-dee”) and has 14 beats. In this piece, Esmail has written the taal in two measures with seven beats each. Each 7/8 measure is organized as 3+4, combining strong beats, weak beats, and rests.

  • The taal is generally played on the tabla, but can be also be performed using syllables and movement.
  • First, practice speaking the syllables.
    • The syllables “Dha” and “Dhin” incorporate a deeper bass drum sound, so they are spoken with greater emphasis. The syllables “Ta” and “Tin” do not include the bass drum sound and are softer and gentler.
    • The first beat in the 14-beat cycle, called the sam (pronounced “sum”), is emphasized.
  • Now, add the claps and waves using Taal Patterns.
    • To clap, place one hand in front of you with the palm up and bring the other hand down to it.
    • To wave, lift the top hand up and wave it off the side, turning the palm up so your hands are spread out with both palms up.
  • As students become comfortable with the taal, sing the melody as they continue clapping and waving. You can also divide the class into two parts, with one half singing the melody and the other half performing the taal.

Unlock Patterns in Musical Form

  • Sing and review the “Ode to Joy” melody.
  • Look at the first phrase, measures 5–8.
    • A phrase is a short musical segment with a specific melodic contour and rhythm.
    • In the first phrase of “Ode to Joy,” what rhythmic patterns do you see? How many times does a rhythm repeat in that phrase?
    • Where does the phrase end? How do you know?
  • Now look at the full melody.
    • How many total phrases are in this melody? (Four: A-A-B-A.)
    • Where does each phrase begin and end? How do you know?
  • Using the “Ode to Joy” Melodic Contours in Melodies Are Made of Patterns (PDF), examine each phrase.
    • What rhythmic patterns do you notice in each phrase?
    • What is the melodic contour of each phrase?
    • Where do the phrases begin and end?
    • How can rhythmic and melodic patterns help us identify phrases?
    • Are there any additional patterns that you observe?
  • Listen to the audio track “Ode to Joy” (vocal part) to confirm your observations.

Decode Melodies in “Ode to Joy”

When musicians are learning a piece of music, they may use different musical lenses to decode the melodies. Explore these different lenses in “Ode to Joy.”

Downloadable PDFs

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