Melody and Harmony
By Nina Pinzarrone
Melody is the horizontal aspect of music. It is a series of individual pitches perceived by the listener as a complete unit (melodic line) with a beginning, middle, and end, like a series of movements that, taken together, form a dance phrase. The first thing most of us notice about a piece of music is the melody; often, it’s what stays with us. For dancers, the melody helps them remember the choreography.
Most melodies exist within a scale system (historically known as a mode). A scale is a series of consecutive pitches based on a specific pattern of musical steps, most often in a major or minor tonality. “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music is an example of the C major scale.
Major scales tend to be described as happy or uplifting. Minor scales are built with a slightly different pattern of steps and are often described as menacing—for example, Tybalt’s theme in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet—or sad and mysterious, like the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
A melody has direction. It can progress upward on the scale, like Tybalt’s theme, or downward, like the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. It can be composed of short motifs, like the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or longer themes such as the “Grand Pas de Deux” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Several melodic themes can be joined together to form phrases that create a musical sentence.
Harmony (the chords, combinations of notes sounded at the same time) is the vertical aspect of music; it supports the melody. Each scale has a series of chords that are formed from the individual notes of that scale.
Within a piece of music, the chords usually follow a pattern known as a chord progression. This is similar to the construction of a dance phrase; for example, tombé pas de bourrée, glissade, jeté. Just as certain dance steps fall naturally into patterns, so do the chords associated with the harmony of a piece.
Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded seven CDs for ballet class.