How to Find the Melody

Question: I was wondering if there is a trick to figuring out the melody line on a score. Is it always the top notes? What happens when it goes to the left hand? Is there something you are looking for that tells you, or do you have to listen for it? Thanks for your help.

– Barb (Peoria, Arizona, USA)

Albert’s reply: You need to know each voice in every piece of music you play, not just the melody. When you do, you will easily find the melody. It’s true that the melody is usually the soprano voice, though it’s often placed in another voice. I recommend playing a lot of Bach so that you learn to hear the melody no matter where it may be.

It’s even more important to know accompanimental voices than melodic voices. The reason is that, while the accompaniment is generally less important musically (meaning that it is not emphasized the way the melody is), it’s easy to forget non-melodic voices. This is where you need to pay the most attention during your practice.

Hearing the top voice (the soprano) is easy because our ears naturally make out the highest pitches; furthermore, the top voice usually contains the melody. Yet even in music you’re familiar with (or think you are!), can you sing the inner voices? Most piano students have trouble with this exercise. They learn which keys to press but never manage to hear all the notes consciously.

That said by way of introduction, how can you find the melody? The melody is often marked by the direction of the note stems. The accompaniment voice sometimes coincides with the melody. In this case, the melody notes will usually have stems pointing down as well as up. Even though these are the exact same notes, one of them indicates the accompaniment and the other the melody.

Sometimes the melody is in the bass voice. There’s a wonderful example in Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations. This is a work for piano based on themes from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony for orchestra. In one section, Beethoven places the theme in the bass voice:

Many pianists, expecting the melody to be in the upper voice, emphasize the top notes in the left hand. However, the theme is in the lowest voice, and this requires emphasizing the bass voice:

You should get into the habit of playing the voices separately, just as it is important to practice hands separately. Before you play each voice on the piano, try singing it using the solfège syllables. Odds are you will have been practicing a piece, often for weeks or even months, but you won’t be able to sing the inner voices! In other words, you have heard each note but never actually – i.e., actively – listened to it. This comes as quite a shock to most students. It ought to motivate you to pay very close attention to the sound of each note, not just to which fingers play which key.

To summarize, when you know each voice, finding the melody will be a cinch. You’ll also automatically be a better player since you’ll be able to shape each voice individually and in combination with each other.

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