Melody vs Rhythm: What’s the Difference?

Melody vs Rhythm

Most people do not understand the complexity of real music and how many components are in play when they listen to a song. This article aims at highlighting the differences between melody and rhythm, two essential components of musical pieces that often go unnoticed in the presence of good lyrics.

The best way to start explaining the difference between Melody and Rhythm is to define each term.

A melody is a sequence of tones that forms a nice, unified musical piece. Rhythm, on the other hand, is characterized by the regular intervals which divide music into beats that are repeated at a fixed frequency.

Hence, I would say that while the melody is the merging of notes harmoniously to produce a unified piece, rhythm is a series of individual and disconnected time intervals that determine the piece’s tempo.

The Main Difference between Melody and Rhythm

The following table clarifies the difference between melody and rhythm from the components aspect, to the definition, the purpose, and the people and instruments responsible for maintaining each.

Melody Rhythm
Definition Sequence of tones Division of piece into regular time intervals to maintain tempo
Purpose Produce a harmonic, unified musical piece Maintain the consistent partitioning of the piece, emphasizes each note
Components Diverse notes, distinct pitches Beat and time
Responsibility Horns (saxophone, trumpet), pianist, singer Drums, Bass, Piano

The responsibility is discussed in more detail later in the article.

What is Harmony and Where Does It Come in the Equation?

As defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, harmony is “the combination of simultaneous musical notes in a chord”; “the structure of music with respect to the composition and progression of the chords”; “a pleasing arrangement of parts”.

To understand this concept, we first have to understand what a note is exactly. A note is a very specific sound of a certain pitch. A note can be played very briefly and in brusque manner (Staccato); this usually moves the piece away from harmony as each note is detached from the next.

When a note is played for a long moment, producing the same sound continuously, harmony is found. The musical term for such articulation is Legato – slow and unrushed. While rhythm is not explicit in harmony, it is actually there.

Even when there is a very smooth transition between the notes of a piece, contributing to the harmony of a melody, the rhythm still plays a role in dictating how fast this transition is taking place i.e., how frequently does the musician move from one note to another. Sometimes, notes are played so fast that they overlap!

Now going back to harmony, it is actually the end goal which rhythm and melody aim to achieve together. If I start hitting piano keys left and right, the sound is rather disturbing – that means there is no harmony to it.

Alternatively, if a professional composer meticulously writes down notes, the music they generate is characterized by coherence and unification, and this is what the melody tends to achieve: harmony!

The Five Properties of Melodies

It is somewhat agreed upon that every good melody has five properties. This is actually derived from studying the world’s greatest melodies and the common points between them.

The properties are the following.

  1. A basic range, no more than an octave and a half. Normally, the same note Mi, for example, can be played on several different octaves, each of a different pitch. According to the previous statement, the octave (responsible for pitch) should not be very diverse between the notes.
  2. Repeating elements. When the music is enjoyable, the listener desires to hear it again as he or she grasps its rhythm. They somehow start understanding the music and for that reason, it is good to have some repetition. Repetition also helps in maintaining the identity of each piece; it reminds you that you are still listening to the same composition, not a totally different one.
  3. Stepwise motion with occasional leaps. That is one very specific characteristic, but highly applicable! Sometimes, the music builds up before it explodes into a livening tempo that gives its listeners goosebumps.
  4. Discernible relationship with the bassline. As I mentioned above, the bass plays a major role in setting the rhythm of a song. The melody is apparently related to the bassline by four motions: parallel (the melody and bass move in the same direction i.e., towards the same sound frequency by the same interval, similar (same as parallel but by different intervals), oblique (one remains at the same level while the other moves), and contrary (the melody and the base move opposite to each other).
  5. Climactic point. Just as a story starts with an introduction, then has some rising action before reaching a climax, then falling back down to reach its conclusion, music also tells a story, and so it is good to have a climactic point in the song: the most important part to which everything prior had been building up towards.

The next time you listen to a song you love, try to pinpoint these characteristics in its melody!

Who is Responsible for the Melody of a Song & Who is Responsible for its Rhythm?

Melody and rhythm are not exactly comparable because both are necessary for a musical piece to be audible. Yet, certain instruments help a piece become melodic while others bring out the rhythm.

Often, you find yourself tapping your legs, your feet, the steering wheel, a table near you, or any other surface while listening to music. Notice that this tapping is rhythmic – it is not random; it is organized.

Usually, when you are tapping some surface, the correctness of the beat derives from the background music in the piece, normally the drums or the bass.

While a single piano note can last for over 10 seconds, a drum hit only makes a sound the moment the stick comes into contact with the surface of the drum.

This causes the sound to be detached, which is not a bad thing; it is similar to the skeleton in the human body, holding everything in place as to disallow uncoordinated motion.

Please watch the following video of the world-famous Yanni perform “Marching Season” with his drummer

Notice how even at the start when the melody is still very serene and peaceful, the drummer is hitting the cymbals. Later on in the piece, however, the drummer is generating the whole music and moves very fast to maintain the quick tempo.

Eventually, the audience’s clapping becomes coordinated with the drums, a great example of beat and rhythm.

On the other hand, note the violin’s role in making the sound homogenous in order to avoid any sudden and unpleasant changes in the flow of the music.

One notices that some instruments are innately melodic, such as those listed in the table above. Since human vocal cords can also hit a wide variety of notes for elongated time, singers play a major role in building up a piece’s melody.

Our Conclusion

There is so much more to songs than lyrics, so much so that most famous pieces transcend the need for lyrics to beautify them and hence only rely on melody and rhythm to express emotion.

A good artist does not hide melody with his or her voice but emphasizes it by focusing his or her vocal cords to exactly match the rhythm. Of course, both melody and rhythm are not born on their own – each instrument has its own role in shaping the two.

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