This is the third part in the series of posts about ear training skills. Today I’ll talk about melody playback – the ability to play a melody after hearing it.

Melody is probably the most recognizable part of music.  When humming a song, people usually hum the song’s melody.

Every melody contains two major elements: rhythm and pitch, which work together to create notes.  Rhythm controls the duration of each note, while pitch determines what the note sounds like.  This is the basic idea, but there are many additional attributes that are used to color melodies.

For example:

  • Direction:  describes the motion of a melody, or part of a melody, in which pitches seem to go into one direction.  A melody may begin in a low pitch and then slowly progress to a high pitch.  In this case, we can say that the melody goes “up.”  When the opposite happens and the melody begins on a high pitch and slowly progresses to a low pitch, we say that the melody goes “down.”
  • Shape:   describes the overall motion of pitch in the melody.  Many melodies periodically change direction, such as  initially going down, then up and then down again.
  • Distance:  describes the length of the interval between two notes.  When the two pitches are consecutive (e.g., C to D in the Cmaj scale), the distance is considered a “step.”  Distances larger than that (e.g., C to E) are considered “leaps.”

Melody playback is not an easy skill to develop, but it is certainly the most important one.  Fundamentally, melody playback is just a combination of rhythm recognition and interval recognition.  The rhythm is simply given by the duration of each successive note relative to the underlining beat.

Interval recognition is relevant because there is an interval between each pair of notes in a melody.  This is the simple picture, but the full picture is that it’s quite a variety of skills required for getting really good at melody playback.

For example, find a very simple melody that you don’t know how to play and try out these steps:

  1. Listen to the melody a few times.  Can you clap the rhythm of the notes?
  2. Listen to the melody again and pay attention to the first and last notes.  Does the last note sound higher than the first?
  3. Listen again and pay attention to shape of the melody.  Does the melody go down then up, or up then down, or some other combination?
  4. Listen again and try to determine which pairs of notes are steps and which are leaps.

As you see, melody playback is by far the most challenging to acquire, of all ear training skills.  This is not surprising since the other skills deal with individual musical building blocks, such as rhythm, or intervals, while melody playback requires using all of them at the same time.

To get good at melody playback, you have to start small and slowly build yourself up to more and more complicated melodies.  A highly structured ear training method, such as our own ear training software, Ear Teacher, can help you out with this by putting you on the right path.

Photo credit: darrenleno

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