Melody is the linear succession of individually sounded notes. Melody is often contrasted with harmony, which involves chords (comprising two or more simultaneously sounded notes). A work’s melody is what we consider the tune of a piece. Indeed it is most usually the melody of a piece that we hum when trying to recall it; a piece’s melody is typically its most distinctive and memorable feature. As such, melody is the musical element that most easily lends itself to claims of originality. The example below presents the   melody of “Yankee Doodle” and then that melody with harmonic accompaniment.

Audio File

Yankee Doodle Melody and Harmony

In popular music, where the vast majority of works are songs, the principal melody tends to be sung with lyrics, and is thus further distinguished from the other musical elements of harmony, rhythm, meter, and so on. As a more general concept, however, the term applies to most of a piece’s pitch elements that are not chords. Thus, for example, a pop song might begin with an introductory guitar solo before the singer begins; that solo could be considered a “melody” if it is playing a tune rather than a mere succession of chords.

Melody is overwhelmingly the single most important feature of a musical work in evaluating the merits of copyright infringement claims. The entire corpus of judicial opinions in the area of music copyright infringement dwells on melody as the single most idiosyncratic element of the works in question, and almost entirely the locus of the economic worth of a song. Accordingly, the more melodically similar two works are, the more likely a court will determine that the later created work infringes upon the earlier.


References to other Glossary terms: