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Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm


These are the three components of all music—melody, harmony, and rhythm.  Melody is a “horizontal” component, the theme, line, or group of phrases in the foreground of a piece, or the theme played over the

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head in a jazz chart.  Harmony is a “vertical” component, the combinations or “voicings” of notes together that resonate as a tone or feeling.  Rhythm is the tempo, the timing, or the beat.  These three components make up all music, whether folk tunes or disco or toccatas.


When composing, one can manipulate these components to add structure or coherence.  For example, development often occurs by changing one or two of the components.  An initial melody could be played in an A section, and then changed to a contrasting melody in a B section, while keeping the rhythm and harmony the same.  Or, the harmony could change along with the melody.


However, what would happen if all three changed?  This could, depending on the composer’s usage, seriously hinder the flow of the tune.  If all three elements change, then the consistency of the music is lost and the listener probably becomes confused.


What are some examples?  In jazz standards, we could look at “Green Dolphin Street.”  The A section presents a melody, is in C Major, and has a latin rhythm.  The B section changes rhythm to straight-ahead swing, and introduces a second melody/theme.  But, the harmony remains the same, in the key of C, with ii-V-I’s to the root and the major flat third.


Or, looking at some pieces by minimalist contemporary composer John Adams, such as China Gates or Phrygian Gates, we may find some unusual harmonic shifts.  However, these do not interrupt the flow of the piece because the repetitive rhythm and horizontal patterns remain the same.  Likewise one can analyze any number of pieces and find that usually one or two of the elements change, while the third remains the same for continuity.


Thus, being aware of the three components, melody, harmony, and rhythm provides a good strategy for coherent and understandable writing.





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