Using melodic patterns to play by ear

One important thing to realise about playing music by ear is that the notes found in melodies are not random. The are melodic patterns that show up over and over again, and learning to recognise and play these makes playing the ocarina by ear much easier.

Note that the names I am using for some of these patterns were coined by David Fuentes, who has a great article series giving examples of these in well known music. You can find it linked at the end of the article.

Scale runs

Among the most common patterns you will hear in music is a scale run, a sequential run of two or more notes from the song's key. I'm pretty sure that you will have heard an 'octave to octave' scale run before, which sounds like this:

But in practice, fragments of scale runs are far more common in real-world music. Ascending or descending scale runs of 3 or 4 adjacent notes are extremely common, for example:

  • The opening phrase of "terra's theme" from final fantasy 6 begins on an ascending 3 note scale run.
  • Swallowtail jig begins on a descending scale run, and to some extent the whole tune is based on descending scale runs.

You can here these below.


The other pattern that you will hear in a ton of music are arpeggios.

An arpeggio is when the notes of a chord are played one after another, instead of simultaneously. Melodies frequently follow the notes of the underlying chords, and consequently you will often hear arpeggios in melodies.

In its most rudimentary form an arpeggio is the notes of a triad (a 3 note chord) played in ascending, or descending order:

To give some examples of arpeggios in music, "Prelude", from the Final fantasy series and "Great Fairy's Fountain" from the legend of Zelda are constructed almost entirely from arpeggios. The highland bagpipe tune "Atholl Highlanders" also makes extensive use of arpeggios.

Within music, arpeggios are more often found in a 3 note form, omitting the octave of the root note. The notes of the arpeggio may also appear in different orders within a melody, which are called 'inversions'. Inversions are formed by taking the note of the bottom of the arpeggio and moving it up by an octave.

Melodies often make use of inverted arpeggios as they allow different chords to show up within the same note range. For example:

There are also occurrences where a scales and arpeggios coexist:

  • The middle note of an arpeggio sometimes gets shifted up or down by 1 scale degree, turning the first or last two notes into a scale run. Called a 'suspended arpeggio'.
  • If you notice, an arpeggio has two 'gaps', and you will often run across music where one of them is filled in with the scale note.

Patterns creating centring

You may have noticed that an ascending scale or arpeggio creates an expectation that the following notes will be higher, while a descending pattern does the opposite. There are other patterns that create a strong resolution to a single note.

One such pattern involves leaping up from a starting note, then resolving to a note between the two. Often an interval of a third or fifth:

  • Leaping up by a third, and descending by a second. You may notice is the same notes as an ascending 3 note scale with the last two notes swapped.
  • Leaping up by a fifth, and descending by a third. This is the same as a 3 note arpeggio with the last two notes swapped.

David Fuentes calls these two patterns 'Little Holly Philip' and 'Plectrum', and you can hear how they sound below, in both ascending and descending forms.

Another common resolving figure is where a melody moves away from a note, only to return to it. One such example being a 3 note ascending scale which returns to the starting note. You may also recognise this as the opening figure of "frere jacques".

Finally is the leading tone resolution, which depends on the harmonic structure of the major scale. If you remember, the Major scale is formed from the pattern:

Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half

As the scales repeat in octaves, taking a step down the scale from the tonic is the same as walking backwards through this pattern by one step. So the note below the tonic is a half step, or one semitone lower. This note is called the 'leading tone' as it sounds very tense, and wants to 'lead into' the tonic.

A leading tone resolution makes use of that tension by starting on the tonic, descending to and holding the leading tone, before returning to the tonic.

Learning to recognise the patterns in music

To learn to identify these patterns by ear, it is worthwhile studying the music that you enjoy listening to, or want to learn. So, can you hear any of these in the music you listen to, or play?

  • Start by listening or playing a single pattern a few times, and then listen through a song a few times, listening for things that sound similar.
  • You may find it easier at first to use sheet music, and look for the patterns at the same time as you are listening for them.

And once you can recognise them, the next step is knowing how to perform them on an instrument. Unfortunately there is no easy solution, besides learning to play the pattern starting from every note in a scale. For example, here is an octave of 3 note scales in C:

And here are the root position arpeggios within the range of a C ocarina:

Practising the figures in different positions will also help you to learn to identify them by ear, through frequent exposure.

Another thing is learning to hear the difference between similar patterns. For instance the ascending / descending arpeggio, and an ascending / descending scale sound distinct, which you can hear in the next example.

Ornamental patterns

The previously mentioned patterns are the critical ones, and there are a number of other common patterns that composers use to ornament melodies.

Anticipating movement

To add interest, if a melody is going to ascend or descend, a composer will often anticipate that movement, by moving in the opposite direction. The 'Crazy driver' figure represents this idea applied to a scale, while 'Bounce' and 'Pounce' represent it applied to an arpeggio.

Oscillations between two notes

It is not uncommon that you will find patterns which oscillate between two adjacent notes, either notes from a scale, or notes from an arpeggio.

Inserting notes into a simple pattern

If a melody makes use of two notes that ascend or descend following a scale, a composer may ornament this by inserting another note (often a chord note) between the two.

Pedal notes

A pedal note is when a melody repeatedly returns to the same note, while leaping to other higher or lower notes. The repeated jump to a single note implies a harmonic basis. In fact if a pattern like this is played at a high enough tempo, the mind merges everything together and the fixed note actually is perceived in harmony.

In the following example, C is the pedal note.

The term 'pedal note' comes from church organs, which have pedals that can play sustained bass notes.

Closing notes and further reading

Learning to recognise and play patterns by ear is useful as it moves you from thinking about one note after anther, to one pattern after another. It's analogous to moving from letters, to words.

The patterns that I've mentioned in this article are meant to be an introduction, and are in no way exhaustive. I'd strongly recommend reading the article ' The 24 universal melodic figures' by, which gives countless examples of figures in real music.

Also, try studying the music that you play regularly and see if you can identify any patterns for yourself. What is common does vary between music genres .