Common patterns in music - playing the ocarina by ear part 3

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

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.

To learn to recognise these patterns, it helps to learn to play the pattern starting from every note in a scale. For example, here is an octave of 3 note scales in C, both ascending and descending.

Another great way of learning to identify these patterns is to associate them with music that uses them. Can you identify any scale runs in the music you play, or listen to?


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 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.

Like scale fragments, it is worthwhile learning the arpeggios beginning from every note in a scale. Here are the C scale arpeggios within the range of a C ocarina:

Note that an ascending / descending arpeggio, and an ascending / descending scale sound distinct, which you can hear in the next example. Learning to hear the difference is really valuable.

There are also occurrences where a scale and arpeggio occur at the same time, by adding an extra note to 'fill in' the arpeggio.

Patterns creating centring

In listening to the above patterns you may have noticed that an ascending pattern creates an expectation that the following notes will be higher, while a descending pattern creates an expectation that the following notes will be lower.

There are other patterns that instead create a sense on centring or resolution. For example if you take an ascending 3 note scale and swap the last two notes, the effect becomes to resolve to the final centre note. A similar effect is created if you take a 3 note arpeggio, swapping the last two notes.

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 phrase that may not be so obvious is a 3 note scale moving away from a note, only to return to it. You may also recognise this as the opening phrase of "frere jacques".

And resolutuion is often created using the leading tone:

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.

Ornamental note patterns

Finally, these are some common patterns which are principally used to ornament, or add interest to the 'bones' of a melody.

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 arpegio.

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 between the two. This pattern is called "Pendulum" due to how it looks when you graph the pitches. You can imagine the two scale notes 'swinging' around the higher note like a pendulum.

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 fixed note actually is perceived in harmony.

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 .