What is a melody?

The ocarina is a melody instrument, basically it is designed to play music like the following example. Melodies are built from pitch, which note to play, and 'rhythm', which is when to play each note.

This article discusses how to listen for those things in music by ear, and how this relates to sheet music is discussed in other articles.

Pitch and notes

Pitch describes the 'highness' or 'lowness' of a sound. High pitches sound like this:

And low pitches sound like this:

Pitched sounds are really common day to day, and here are a few examples of pitched sounds you'll already know.

  • Bird songs
  • People singing or playing instruments like piano, flute or ocarina.
  • A cat meowing, the pitch usually starts low, raises and then falls.
  • A siren - usually sound alternating between two pitches.
  • Mains hum.

Can you think of any others?

Side note: Timbre (tone colour)

In addition to pitch, notes also have a propriety called 'timbre', or 'tone colour'. Timbre is what makes an ocarina sound like an ocarina, a violin sound like a violin, and a piano sound like a piano. Sounds can have the same pitch, but have a different timbre.

You can hear the same pitch played on a collection of instruments with different timbres in the following audio sample:

Visulising pitch

It is easy to visulise the pitch of sounds using tools like a chromatic tuner, or a pitch graph like the one below.

In a pitch graph high pitches are drawn towards the top in the graph, and lower pitches are drawn towards the bottom.

Try whistling or singing, and watch how the line moves.

Discrete pitches and scales

Fundamentally, pitch is continuous. If you whistle in the above tool and make a 'whoop' sound, a smooth ascending curve will be drawn. But you may have noticed the fixed lines with names like 'F', 'G', or 'C#'.

To make it easier to make music sound musical, as well as to design instruments that people can more easily play, western music has standardised a number of fixed pitches out of this continuum that sound good together, which are called:


A# Bb



C# Db


D# Eb



F# Gb


G# / Ab

If you play all of these adjacent notes, this is how it sounds. Note that the distance between any two notes is called a semitone, the distance between two cells in this tool. This is called the chromatic scale:

In listening to this, you may have noticed that it is very difficult to tell one note from another. The distance between any two of these adjacent notes is called a 'semitone', and all semitones sound the same.

To make them sound more interesting, melodies are usually constructed out of collections of notes spaced irregularly. Quite a few of these patterns exist, including the major, minor, and blues scales which you can hear below:

Standardising pitches also allows us to play different instruments together, all western instruments play the same system of notes!

Because melodies are built from these irregular selections of notes, don't you think it would be cumbersome to think about the notes that you are not using? In fact, we only consider the notes within the scale that they are using, and ignore the others. You can see how this looks for yourself in the following example if you change 'scale' between 'chromatic' and 'C major', notice how the gaps vanish.

This concept is the basis of how the notes are named, and you can read more about notes, scales, and how they are named on the page Octaves and scale formation.


Finally for this whirlwind tour of pitches, it is interesting to note that the chromatic scale is based on an even spacing, as long as the spacing between the pitches in a scale pattern stay the same, you can shift the pattern up or down arbitrarily, and it will still sound the same.

The ability to do this is called 'transposition', and is very useful for limited range instruments like the ocarina. It means that you can alter melodies that would be impossible to play, and make them fit within the range of your instrument.


I want you to stop reading this, and get up and go for a walk. As you are walking, notice how your feet meeting the ground form a consistent pattern? hit, hit, hit....

Now, imagine that you were to play note every time your foot hits the ground, one pitch for your left foot, and a different pitch for your right? It would sound something like this.

Congratulations, you have just discovered the principle of 'pulse' or beat in music; a steady, repeating division of time. Now all you need to do to make a melody is play different notes on different 'beats', for example:

Varying note duration

Don't you think it sounds boring using only notes of one duration? What about if instead of playing a note every beat, we hold the note to span two beats, doubling its length. Or how about holding it for 3 or 4 beats?

That sounds like this. Note that the example first plays a note on every beat to give you a point of reference. Also note that I have added notes of shorter durations to maintain alignment with the 'multiple of 2' grouping.

Naturally you can also do the opposite, playing a note for a duration of half a beat, a quarter of a beat, and so on. Here is how it sounds when you have a sequence of notes of progressively halving durations:

Rhythms can be formed from pretty arbitrary collections of note durations, but the one cravat is that there needs to be some high level structure, like in the '3-3-2' pattern above, it aligns every 8 beats. Without this, the sense of meter starts to vanish and the rhythm sounds weird:


Do you remember that in the previous section I mentioned the importance of grouping rhythms on consistent patterns like 2 or 4 beats? This fundamental grouping that a piece of music is based on is called its metre. Metre is just a number of beats that the rhythm cycles on, and where the emphasis falls.

For example, grouping on 2:

Or grouping on 3 beats. If you consider a rhythm like this while walking, you'd notice that the first 'hit' of each group happens on a different foot, giving it a swaying feel. The waltz dance uses this metre, as does the mazurka.

Grouping on 4 in practice is very similar to grouping on 2 as one is just double or half of the other. They are differentiated by weather the primary grouping in a piece of music is based on 4, or 2.

This is one of the most common divisions found in modern music.

Although uncommon, music also makes use of groupings on 5 beats, and sometimes even more. For example the jazz tune 'Take 5', uses a division of 5.

Finally consider what would happen if you took a base division of 2, and then further divided those groupings into 3? This is called 'compound time'. Compound time differs from grouping on 3, as there are only two beats in each group, instead of 6.

There are several different compound times:

  • 1 divided into 3 - used in the french 3-time bourree
  • 2 divided into two groups of 3 - the quintessential 'jig' found in Irish, scottish and english folk dance tunes
  • 3 divided into three groups of 3 - the irish slip jig
  • 4 divided into four groups of 3 - the irish slide

Notice how the notes form patterns in relation to the beat. At first a simple pattern of two beats is used, and then 4. Two corresponds to one step on each leg, and 4 is just double that. Simple patterns like this are extremely common in rhythm.

Following that, you can see another pattern that is based on two groups of 3 notes, and one group of two notes. The pattern as a whole spans 8 beats, and subdivisions like this are also very common. This one is called the '3-3-2' pattern.