Harmony vs Melody

Do you want to learn more about melody and harmony?

Melody and harmony are two of the three most important elements in music. They can be used to create beautiful-sounding pieces or to make a statement. In this article, we will briefly explore what melody and harmony are and understand in detail how similar they are and how much they differ from each other.

After reading this article, you will have a better understanding of the key differences between melody and harmony and be able to apply them more appropriately in your own musical compositions.

Read the complete article to learn more about melody and harmony!

What Is Melody? Melody Definition and Overview

If you consider the music as three-dimensional, then the melody is its height, the rhythm is its width, and the harmony provides depth to it. For a good piece of music, all three dimensions need to work perfectly in tandem. As we will see, the main difference between the two arises from how the musical notes are played. But let us first focus on understanding their main aspects and features so that we can appreciate their similarities and differences better.

A melody, or a tune, is defined as a group of multiple notes played in succession and based on a specific sequence. The defining characteristics of melody are:

  1. A melody consists of three or more notes of varying pitches and durations.
  2. These notes are played in a certain sequence.
  3. A melody defines the selection of the notes, their order, and the duration.
  4. It can be played either independently or together with harmony.
  5. A musical composition may have multiple melodies being played simultaneously by each member of the band. The guitarists, keyboard players, and bassists play the melodies on their instruments while the solo and chorus vocalists sing their portions of the melody.

Melodies have existed since very old times and have evolved ever since. The Baroque period saw many notable composers of melody, like Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Henry Purcell, among others.

Main Elements of Melody

A melody usually distinguishes a song from other songs with similar tempos, chords, and chord progressions. The elements that differentiate one melody from the other are:


As you learned in our article on music theory, a pitch is defined as the specific frequency generated by any vibrating object or instrument. Depending on the frequency in Hz, the pitch may be said to be low or high. Each fret on a guitar or a key on a piano has a specific pitch (Middle C – C4, F5, etc).


Duration defines the time for which one note will sound. The durations are subdivided into whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes which define the fraction of a measure the note is played.

Melodic Movement

Based on the intervals between the pitches, the melody may be classified as having a disjunct or conjunct motion. A movement by only one scale degree (2nd) is known as a step or a conjunct motion, while a movement more than a 2nd is a disjunct motion. The idea behind the distinction is that the conjunct melody rises or falls gradually with small changes in pitch, while the disjunct movement leaps between the notes.

Most vocal melodies are conjunct in nature, as disjunct melodies are difficult to sing. On the other hand, the leaps provide character and a memorable profile to a melody, apart from the rhythms, tones, and contours. But a balance is essential to a good melody.

Melodic Contours

Observing any melodic line on the sheet music gives you an idea about the shape and the sequence of movement in the melody. If you draw a line tracing the music notation of the notes on staff at a specific distance from each note, you will obtain the contour of the melody. The main characteristics of melodic contours are

  1. Movements can be up or down in stepwise motion or in leaps, resulting in four basic types – Step up, step down, leap up, and leap down. Other specific shapes include undulating, pendulum, arc, etc.
  2. If you reproduce the contour of an existing melody starting with a different note, you can reproduce the melody in a different key.
  3. A good melody must carry a balance and diversity in shape. This means it must have all four basic movements discussed in Item 1.
  4. It must have opposite pairs of movements. For example, up by leap can be followed by down by leap or multiple down by steps.
  5. A large difference between the highest note and the lowest note in any melody gives you a lot of options to define the contour by multiple movements. This is further discussed in the section on coherence and limits to vocal range below.

What Is Harmony?

As stated earlier, harmony provides depth to the music. It can be considered as a shifting landscape that provides the background in Western music for melody and rhythms to play out. A more technical definition of harmony involves playing out two or more notes simultaneously in cohesion.

The simultaneous playout of the notes may be by a single or multiple players of an orchestra, defined as chords. A succession of chords is known as a chord progression.

The basic concepts related to the main elements of harmony and how harmony is represented & used in music have been detailed in our article on harmony in music. Instead of repeating them here, we suggest that you go through them there.

What are the types of harmony?

All the different types of harmonies, including diatonic, non-diatonic, polytonic, atonal, implied, monophonic, polyphonic, tertian, quartal, quintal, open, close, etc., have also been dealt with in detail in our article on harmony in music.

Melody vs. Harmony: What’s the Difference?

Let us jump straight into the differences between the two.

#1. The Main Elements

A. The main element of a melody is a note, which is related to a scale degree and identified through an Arabic numeral 1, 2, 3, etc. Harmony consists of chords as their main element, known as the harmonic degrees, and is identified through the Roman numerals I, II, III, etc. These numerals point toward the root of the chords but signify the chord as a whole.

B. The succession of notes forms a tune or a melody characterized by melodic intervals like a minor third, Perfect fourth, etc. The chord changes or successions form a chord progression characterized by harmonic intervals.

C. A melodic scale is formed by the seven diatonic notes in a specific order (intervals) and the octave. A harmonic scale is formed by the seven chords of the diatonic scales placed in a certain order.

D. There are 24 major and minor natural scales formed from each major and minor key. There are 12 harmonic scales, with each scale containing chords from a major scale and its relative minor having the same notes. As you may be aware, a major scale and its relative minor form the same set of chords.

#2. Can any Musical Composition have Harmony without Melody?

While it is possible to have a melody without harmony, you cannot just have harmony without melody. Try hearing only the chords of the star-spangled banner. You cannot identify even one of the most widely known songs just by its chords.

Your brain can imply harmony based on the tonality of the melody, but not the reverse. Melody always has precedence over harmony. For another example, suppose you have played a major scale degree 1 triad, which is a stable chord without any motion. The moment the melody moves away from the scale degree 1, the so far stable feeling chord assumes a dynamic quality and presents a feeling of unrest.

#3. Consonance and Dissonance

Both harmony and melody function by first establishing tonality through the use of consonant intervals related to the scale degrees 1, 3, 4, and 5 early in the melody, along with consonant triad chords like I, IV, and V.

A famous example in popular music includes the Jagger – Richards classic song “Street Fighting Man.” which used only scale degrees 1 and 4 in melody & I and IV chords in the key of C to establish tonality before modulating to the key of G.

Once the tonality is established, then the composer can bring movement or drama to the musical piece by introducing dissonance through the use of dissonant intervals and chords before the resolution back to the tonic center and consonance.

We have discussed the role of consonance and dissonance in melody and harmony in detail in our article on the subject.

#4 Establishing Tonality, Coherent Structure & Limiting to the Vocal Range.

We discussed the role of melody and harmony in point #3 above. While to interest the listener, the melody must have some unpredictability and excitement but must be coherent, as too much novelty only causes confusion. The smallest portion of the melody, known as the musical phrase, must be related to the next phrase to be memorable.

Anyone composing music must remember that most melodies have a range of 7 to 19 semitones, equivalent to an interval of a Perfect 5th to an octave and a Perfect 5th. Male and female voices have the same range but in different frequency zones. Similarly, the verses and chorus have the same range in different zones.

These limitations are mostly applicable to the melody.

#5 Tunes & Chord Progressions – Melodic Vs Harmonic Force.

The different melodic intervals exhibit varying degrees of harmonic force, with some having more harmonic force than others in the melodic context and vice versa.

  1. Intervals with stronger harmonic force – All 5th, 4th and 3rd intervals, which are consonant, also exhibit a strong harmonic force. The aiding harmonic force allows the intervals to establish tonality.
  2. Intervals with moderate harmonic force – The 6th intervals exhibit equal melodic and harmonic forces.
  3. Intervals with weaker harmonic force – The 2nd and 7th intervals have a strong melodic force.

There must be a balance of variety and coherence in any composition. You can even balance the dissonance between the two. If you are using dissonant intervals like 2nd, you can use consonant triads to let the melody stand out and also balance the total dissonance. On the other hand, if you use the consonant 3rd, 4th or 5th intervals, you may use dissonant chords to create a bit of tension.

#6. Relative Speed of Melody and Harmony

In any well-composed song in a particular key, both the melody and harmony relate to each other and appear unified but may proceed at a different pace, leading to the following three scenarios.

The melody moves faster than the harmony.

This is the most common scenario, as the chord changes happen once in a couple of bars or even four. A song with a faster tempo usually has lesser chord changes. The actual time for the chord change may be the same as the moderate tempo, but the bars between the chord change are more.

Harmony is faster than melody.

To create a surprise and emotional response, many composers hold the tone of the melody while the chord changes. The resolution happens when the normal succession of the notes in tune resumes.

Harmony and melody have the same speed.

This concept is used much less in comparison to the other two, as there has to be a chord change with every note, making it a very slow and tedious affair with a lot of effort from the players.

#7 Cadences

We had spoken about phrases previously. The phrases are the musical units that combine to form larger units like periods, phrase groups, verses, bridges, choruses, etc. The resolution at the end of each phrase is called cadence. A cadence has melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic properties.

The last note of a VM (Vocal melodic) phrase is usually accompanied by a V or I chord. The presence of a V chord represents an imperfect or incomplete cadence, and the phrase is known as the antecedent phrase. Chord I represents a complete cadence. The frequency of cadences is an important factor in defining melodic coherence. If they are far apart, the VM phrases will not be coherent.

The VM phrases are usually found in groups of 2 or 4, known as pairs or pair groups. The intermediate or continuing cadence requires a V chord after the phrase if tonality is still not established.

If the tonality is already firmly established, you can use chords like IV, IIm, or VIm for intermediate cadence. But, as cadence depends on both harmony and melody, the phrase must land on a note other than the tonic note melodically.

With chord I in the second phrase, the cadence depends on the scale degree of the melody.

  • With a scale degree 1 note, it is usually complete.
  • With a scale degree 5 note, it sounds less conclusive.
  • With a scale degree3 note, it is still less conclusive than 5.


We hope you enjoyed learning the difference between melody and harmony. If you have any questions or clarifications, please leave them in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!

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