More thoughts on Melody Analysis

This weeks musicology lecture examined  ways in which it is possible to analyse popular music melody – specifically from a horizontal perspective. I think this is an area that is under represented in popular music analysis – so here is some terminology you may find useful.

Some of the terminology is well know, although much of it are considerations of my own that I have developed over the years. To begin with – I have found the following techniques/descriptors to be useful for analysing melody.

  • Motif: The smallest self contained unit that has recognisable shape, or contour.
  • Question Phrase: A musical statement – Often 2 or 4 bars long – that usually requires completion
  • Answer Phrase: The 2nd phrase of the ‘Sentence’. Although not a ‘rule’, often sounds like it is resolving. Sometimes called the ‘answer’.
  • Sentence: This is the Answer Phrase and Question Phrase combined
  • Sections: This is when the above is grouped together to form what most of us call ‘Verses’ and ‘Choruses’

Once we are familier with what the above sound like – the next thing to consider is how repetition occurs. So for example

  • How does the ‘Answer Phrase 1’ compare to the ‘Question Phrase 1’?
  • How does ‘Answer Phase 2’ relate to ‘Question Phase 2’?
  • How does Question Phrase 1 compare to Question Phrase 2?
  • How does ‘Sentence 1’ compare to ‘Sentence 2′?
  • How Does Section 1 compare to Section 2, etc.

Techniques could include

Rhythmic Sequence:

¨Where the melody is different but the rhythm is the same. This can be between question – answer phrases or sentences. For Example

¨‘Good Stuff: Donald Fagen

¨Black Chandelier: Buffy Clyro

¨Whitney Houston ‘Run to You’ (Chorus) 1:00

Note: Sometimes these repetitions are not exact – if not – you can label ‘near’ before the name. IE ‘Near Rhythmic Sequence’.

Tonal Sequence

¨The rhythm and melody between question -answer phrases or sentences are identical to earlier material, but up or down a predetermined pitch.


¨This occurs at the level of the Sentence in –

¨Mozart: Theme from 40th Symphony!

¨Van Halen: ‘You Really Got Me’

¨Antonio Carlos Jobim ‘Girl From Ipanema’ (Chorus) 0:38

Elbow ‘One Day Like This’

Direct Repetition

¨When the melody and rhythm of an answer phrase is identical to the ‘question’, or between sentences.

¨For example the first two phrases of most Blues songs

¨‘My Man Called Me’ Big Mamma Thornton

¨‘Off The Wall’ Lee Ranaldo

Rhythmic Displacement

¨When the answering phrase is identical to the question, but commences on a different beat.

¨This is a more advanced technique and is not particularly common in popular music

¨See examples below –

¨Cannonball Adderley ‘Straight No Chaser’ and ‘Fascinating Rhythm’

Contextual Placement

¨When the melody is identical but the harmony changes.

¨For example: The First 8 bars of most blues songs –

¨‘Hound Dog’ Big Mamma Thornton

¨Antonio Carlos Jobim: ‘One Note Samba’

¨Antonia Carlos Jobim: ‘Girl From Ipanema’ (Verse)

¨Thin Lizzy ‘Whisky in the Jar’

New Material

¨Where the answering phrase consists of entirely new material

¨The Beatles: ‘Hey Jude’

¨Bobby Vinton: ‘Blue Velvet’

¨Suzanne Vega ‘Luka’

¨Take That ‘A Million Love Songs’

¨No Audio – but also –

¨Joe Cocker ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’

¨Patsy Cline ‘Crazy’

¨Feist ‘The Water’

¨Whitney Houston ‘Run to You’ (Verse)

¨Sting ‘Dead Man’s Boots’

I am interested in other examples – please post here as opposed to Facebook etc


About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in Musicology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to More thoughts on Melody Analysis

  1. Rohnan Whitebeam says:

    Several of these techniques seem to be preset when studying classical music – question and answer phrases could be comparable to what I learned in college to call ‘antecedence and consequence’ (just listen to and Mozart or Haydn). While there aren’t strict verse/chorus structures there are ‘sections’ of melodies in classical music as well, so could it be that melodies follow similar rules even after 100’s of years of changes in musical styles?


  2. Paul Carr says:

    That’s why I used the Mozart example Rohnan – there are big similarities


  3. David Andrew Blackwell says:

    I think that this is a very interesting and useful article. Thanks. I used to teach music and I tend to forget some of the more technical terms – this was good revision and in some cases a bit of learning too.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. gilloshea says:

    Would I be correct in thinking that ‘Dueling Banjo’s’ would be a very extreme example both of ‘Direct Repetition’, and also of ‘Tonal Sequence’. Irish jigs and reels etc also seem to be classic examples of ‘Rhythmic Sequence’ ‘question and answers’. I have also been listening to thriller/horror suspense type movie soundtracks (e.g:-/ 10 best physiological thrillers), in which I think the ‘question and answer, rhythmic sequence’ layout is very subtle meaning that one does not ‘have’ to listen to it, which, as a result supports the visuals and suspense better (?).


  5. Paul Carr says:

    I can hear the ‘direct repetition Gillian!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s