The 24 Universal Melodic Figures

If you’ve ever sensed that different songs share one or more patterns, you’re right! In fact, you don’t knwo how right you are! Every melody you know comes from just 24 melodic patterns or “figures.” Each one is 3- to 4-notes long, and falls into one of three categories:

  • arpeggio figures: all or mostly chord tones
  • scale figures: chord tones plus passing tones
  • neighbor figures: chord tones plus neighbor notes

The table below lists the 24 figures in their simplest configuration: starting on the root of C major harmony, without rhythmic variation or repeated notes, small rather than large leaps, and in ascending order (with one exception). The table is interactive. Clicking on any figure opens a window that gives a brief description plus three excerpts from well-established songs in various styles.

the 24 Universal Melodic Figures
(the building blocks of melody)

The 24 Universal Melodic Patterns
the 3-Note Scalethe Auxiliarythe Arpeggiothe Runthe Trillthe Oscillatorthe Rx-5the PivotLittle Holy Phillipthe Returnthe Crazy Driverthe Archthe Pendulumthe Parkourthe Plectrumthe Rollthe Double Neighborthe Double Thirdthe Arpeggio Plusthe Leaping Scalethe Leaping Auxiliarythe Zigzagthe Cambiatathe Funnel

the 3-Note Scale

At the heart of the 3-Note Scale lies the most resonant sound in music: the harmonic third. Thirds form the harmonic foundation of music throughout the world. We rely on them to construct chords, contrast emotions, and harmonize songs around a campfire with our friends. What does this have to do with the 3-Note Scale? The 3-Note Scale takes this most crucial element of harmony and turns it into a little melody.
 
chord tones for c major
 
“But,” you protest, “it’s so boring. Step-step up; or step-step down. How can I write an interesting melody from such a nothing?”
 
That’s like asking how so much astounding architecture can arise from combining rectangles, or how so many life forms from the carbon atom. Wherever we look in our universe, we find that the most crucial building blocks are also the most humble.
 
The excerpts I’ve chosen barely scratch the surface of what the 3-Note Scale can do—the incredible variety of emotions and ideas it can produce. You’ll hear a folk song that captures our common desire for meaning followed by its polar opposite: a cocky, flirtatious strut. Finally, the piano concerto theme feels immensely personal, like something between a dream and a diary entry.
 
“Blowin’ In the Wind,” by Bob Dylan
blowin-in-the-wind
 
“Cool,” by the Jonas Brothers
cool Jonas brothers melodic figures
“Piano Concerto #3,” by Sergei Rachmaninoff
Rachmaninoff piano concerto melodic figures
 

the Auxiliary


In general use, the term “auxiliary” refers to something that adds to or extends the capabilities of something else. So when you add a printer to a computer, the printer becomes an auxiliary device.

And so it is with the melodic figure dubbed the Auxiliary. We hear its main note, a chord tone, two times: once at the beginning, then again at the end. The add-on note – the auxiliary portion of the figure – is an upper or lower neighbor note.

auxiliary figure demo
“Silent Night,” by Franz Xavier Gruber
silent-night melodic figures
As far as “extending the capabilities” of the chord tone we turn into an auxiliary, take a moment to try to imagine the melodies below with repeated notes rather than the auxiliary tones the composers heard fit to include.

“Bad Romance,” by Lady Gaga
bad-romance melodic figures

“Toreador Song,” by Georges Bizet
toreador melodic figures

the Arpeggio


To create an arpeggio, we perform the notes of a chord one at a time rather than simultaneously.

Groups of notes written first as a chord, then an arpeggio
chord vs arpeggio

Now there’s no rule that says we must begin at the bottom and run through the notes in order or the top and cascade down. In fact, there are many different patterns you can make with nothing but chord tones. And that’s why we have so many types of arpeggio figures.
But when we do perform the notes of a chord in order without changing direction, we get the simplest of all the arpeggios, the Arpeggio.

“Ring of Fire,” by Johnny Cash
ring of fire figures

“Sesame Street,” by Franz Xavier Gruber
Sesame Street melodic figures

“On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” by Johann Strauss Jr.
danube blue

the Run


The word “run” is already in use in music. It either refers to a long scale or a somewhat fancier bit of melodic fluster (sometimes called a “riff.”) At FiguringOutMelody.com, the melodic figure we call the Run is exactly four notes long, and those notes always form a scale.

Of the many ways to use a Run, one easily comes out ahead of the rest. The Run often paints in broad or medium-long strokes. Sometimes these gestures join together to cover a large amount of registral space (as in “Penny Lane”). Other times, they don’t move very far but sway over a secure foundation (as in “As Time Goes By”) But Runs can also have a far nimbler side as we hear in “Wachet Auf,” from a large work for choir that deals with waking humankind from its spiritual stupor.

“As Time Goes By,” by H. Hupfeld
as time goes by figures

“Penny Lane,” by Lennon & McCartney
penny-lane

“Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns Die Stimme,” by J.S. Bach
penwachet-auf melodic figures

the Trill


In common usage, a trill is a melodic embellishment produced by rapidly alternating two notes a step or semitone apart. It closely resembles the way that speakers of certain languages roll their R’s (always with great gusto), which is also called a trill (or to linguists, “trilled rhotics”). The name “Trill” fits this figure, even at such a slow speed.
 
The three samples here show a few possible effects of the Trill. “A Modern Major General” uses the alternating notes to create interest during what is essentially a rap. The Trill figure in “Iron Man” resembles a true embellishment, though of course, slower. And in “Back to You,” we get a sense for how versatile the Trill is. The alternating notes not only easily adapt to the sassy rhythm, but they also make it pop.
 
“A Modern Major General,” by Gilbert & Sullivan, with new lyrics by Randy Rainbow
modern-major-general melodic figures

 
“Iron Man,” by Black Sabbath
iron-man melodic figures

 
“Back to You,” by Selena Gomez
back-to-you melodic figures

the Oscillator


When we say that something oscillates, we mean that it swings back and forth in a steady motion. If you want to cool an entire room with a small fan, get one that oscillates.
 
But to say that music "swings" means something altogether different. And that is why we call this figure the Oscillator and not the Swinger. Depending on who performs it and in what style, the Oscillator may or may not swing. No guarantees here.
 
The Oscillator sounds more harmonic, more resonant than the Trill, its close cousin. And it usually feels differently, as well. The Trill can come off as introverted when compared to the Oscillator. What do I mean by that?
 
The oscillating interval in the Trill is the more restrained, “close to the vest” second; while the Oscillator juggles its more extroverted harmonic 3rd or even other intervals out in the open. Other intervals? Correct. The Oscillator can activate any two notes of a harmony, whether they lie close together or far apart. You’ll hear this in the Mozart sonata, which oscillates chord tones more than a third apart.
 
“This Old Man,” a children’s counting song, here by the Jackson 5 on The Carol Burnett show, 1974 (Michael sings “He played five.”
this-old-man melodic figures

“Over the Rainbow,” by Harold Arlen
over-the-rainbow-bridge melodic figures

“Sonata in D,” K.576 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
sonata-k576 melodic figures

the Rx-5


The Rx-5 gets its name from its outer two notes, typically the root and 5th of a chord or key. The middle note lies a step away from either of the outer notes. The “x” in this figure’s name indicates that there’s flexibility regarding the middle note (including chromatic variation, which we cover in the Field Guide).
rx-5-demo
Although the outer notes are most often the root and 5th of a chord or key, many a melody will use this figure for its characteristic shape without following its harmonic norms. Explaining this very quickly gets very granular. If you’re interested, be sure to refer to the Field Guide. In the meantime, consider the third example below, which demonstrates how harmonically versatile the Rx-5 can be.

“Youngblood,” by 5 Seconds of Summer
youngblood
“La Donna È Mobile,” from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi
la-don-e-mobile
“Girl from Ipanema,” by Antonio Carlos Jobim
girl-from-impanema

the Pivot


To pivot means to swivel or turn; to change direction. Picture a footballer using fancy footwork to drive the ball toward the goal. Don’t “picture it” as much as imagine it. “Try to feel the sort of kinetic momentum that includes some indirection.

There’s nothing straightforward about the Pivot figure. Sometimes, it is literally about indirection (as in “Honesty,” below). But other times, it’s about stretching or reaching, then pulling back from fear of going too far (as in the other two examples here).

“Up Where We Belong,” by Will Jennings, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Jack Nitzsche
up-where-we-belong melodic figures

“Honesty,” by Billy Joel
honesty billy joel melodic figures

“Adagio,” from Symphony #2 in E minor, by Sergei Rachmaninov
rachmaninov-adagio-theme melodic figures

Little Holy Phillip


Nature abhors a vacuum. So does melody.

Any figure that ends opens up a gap (especially a leap of a third) invites the next note to fill up the little hole. So in the example below, versions A and B show the most predictable outcome for a melodic figure ending with a small leap. Versions C and D show how this same 3-note link can occur within one figure—namely, the “Little Holy Phillip” (L.H.P.)
filling the gap in the little holy phillip figure

So, about the name. A main principle in melodic figuration is that we make melody by connecting figures together. The end of one figure with the beginning of the next.

Now imagine that we could take a stop-frame video of the melodic motion between figures. Wouldn’t that help explain why some melodies feel continuous and others don’t?

THWANK! Stop imagining. We CAN INDEED observe the ways that figures link up, and no special equipment is required. Just track the steps and leaps to discover us all we need to know.

“Imagine,” by John Lennon
imagine melodic figures

“Harry Potter Theme,” by John Williams
harry-potter-theme melodic figures

“Symphony No.8” II, by Ludwig van Beethoven
beethoven-symphony-8-ii melodic figures

the Return


The Return figure gets its name from its proclivity to return to its starting note, as shown in the example below.

Outcome A below shows the most predictable destination of the Return figure: note #1 = note #5 (with note 5 being the first note of the next figure).

Outcome B shows another (less-) predictable path: note #5 = note #3. In other words, using this second option, the figure “returns” to the “outside” note, counting note #1 as “home.”

outcomes of the return figure

In the first two melodies below, the Return takes the most predictable outcomeas described above (outcome A). But in the third exceprt, the Strauss melody, we the Return doesn’t return. It LEAPS! The Return is one of many figures that is sometimes used for its smooth-as-silk behavior, and other times—when its natural connection is broken—to add a bit of complexity.

“Senorita,” by Shawn Mendez
senorita mlodic figures

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Freddie Mercury
bohemian rhapsody melodic figures

“Voices of Spring,” by Johann Strauss, Jr.
voices-of-spring melodic figures

the Crazy Driver

the crazy driver
While the names of most melodic figures serve as mnemonic devices, “Crazy Driver” one is a contender for the most quirky. How can a melodic figure act like a Crazy Driver? Let me explain.
The most predictable destination of the Crazy Driver—its “5th note”—lies a 3rd above or below the starting note.
how the crazy-driver-gets its name-1

But notice the path it takes to get there. Rather than steering directly toward its goal, the Crazy Driver figure begins with a swerve in the wrong direction! It’s a lot like an automobile driver who can’t seem to turn into a driveway on the right side of the road without first swerving left! That crazy driver!
how the crazy-driver-gets its name-2
And the name still fits when we consider another predictable destination of the Crazy Driver: to return to the original note. Here, the motion of the melody mimics a (distracted? drunk?) driver who can’t manage to drive in a straight line.
how the crazy-driver-gets its name-3

The designation “crazy” has absolutely nothing to do with how this figure sounds. There’s hardly a better choice for making smooth, gentle waves, as in the first two examples below. The third example shows quite a different sound, using the Crazy Driver as an ornate pickup to kick off a bit of syncopation.
“Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” a Negro Spiritual
joshua-fit-the-battle melodic figures
“Every Breath You Take,” by Sting every-breath you take melodic figures

“Minuet” from the String Quintet in E Majorby Luigi Boccherini
boccherini-minuet melodic figures

the Arch

the arch melodic figure
There are a lot of different types of arpeggio figures. If you hope to keep them straight, watch for two things. First, each type of arpeggio figure has a unique shape. (The one we’re looking at now, is shaped like an arch.) Second, that shape results from calculating the direction of each leap. To produce an Arch, we leap twice in one direction and once in the opposite direction. Or once in one direction, then change direction for the last two leaps.
leap-formula to make an arch
The size of the leaps doesn’t matter, though when all the leaps are roughly the same size (as in the first two figures), we get a more balanced arch.
arch-leap-size
By far, most arch figures equally-proportioned leaps, as reflected in the excerpts below.

“I’ll Fly Away,” by Albert E. Brumley
ALTEXT
“Royals,” by Lourde
royals arpeggio figures in melody
 
“Surprise Symphony,” by Franz Joseph Haydn
surprise-symphony-melodic figures

the Pendulum


The pendulum has two notes that move (or “swing”) by step as if swinging from a middle “fixed” note.
pendulum-demo

“Norwegian Wood,” by Lennon & McCartney

norwegian-wood melodic figures

“Eastside,” by Benny Blanco, Halsey, and Khalid Robinson

eastside melodic figures

“Juliet’s Waltz,” by Charles Gounod
juliets-waltz melodic figures

the Parkour


The goal of Parkour is to move from point A to point B across any landscape in the fastest way possible using efficient movements over or around obstacles. Parkour involves seeing one's environment in a new way, navigating across, through, over and under its features.” These objectives arise from Georges Hébert, the founder of the “parcours du combatant” (obstacle course), which he created for military training.
 
True parkour is highly disciplined. But it’s given way to a more popularized, flashier version known as “freerunning.” The goal of freerunning is self-expression through creative interaction with fixed objects in an objective environment. This might include daredevil leaps, gratuitous flips, and ricocheting off any and all vertical surfaces.
 
The fixed objects for both versions of the Parkour figure are strictly defined (always two chord tones), as are the means of navigating between them (leap-step or step-leap). That said, the spirit of this melodic figure embraces the non-conformist, showy attitude of freerunning. In the end, I decided on the label Parkour for its alliteration with other like-minded athletic figures that begin with “P”: the Pivot, Little Holy Phillip, the Pendulum, the Plectrum, and the Parkour. Now you know where to turn anytime your tune needs a little twist (or a big one).
 
two-parkour-figures
Notice the grey notes in the example above. They show that the Parkour figure always avoids the more direct route in favor of something more obtuse.

“My Favorite Things,” by Rogers & Hammerstein
my-favorite-things melodic figures

“I Love You,” by Billie Eilish
i-love-you melodic figures

“Triumphal March,” from Aida, by Giuseppe Verdi
verdi-triumphal-march melodic figures

the Plectrum


“Plectrum” is a fancy name for a guitar pick. The melodic figure called the Plectrum is an arpeggio in a shape that defies strumming. Each note has to be plucked independently.
Like the Arch, this figure makes an arch shape, but with three notes rather than four.
 
“Imperial March,” by John Williams
imperial-march melodic figures

“Feeling Groovy,” by Paul Simon
feeling-groovy melodic figures

“Violin Concerto in E Minor” by Felix Mendelssohn
mendelssohn-violin-concertomelodic figures

the Roll


The Roll has two component parts: a 3-Note Scale plus a leap of a 3rd in the opposite direction to the 3-Note Scale. The result is a figure where the first and last note of the Run always match, whether the 3-Note Scale comes at the beginning or end of the figure.
 
the-roll-melodic figure illustration

“Hava Nagila,” an Hassidic folk tune
hava-nagila melodic figures

 
“Stand By Me,” by Ben E. King, Jerry Lieber, and Mike Stoller
stand-by-me melodic figures

 
“The Cancan,” from Orpheus in the Underworld, by Jacques Offenbach
cancan melodic figures

the Double Neighbor


The Double Neighbor figure gets its name from tabulating the number of non-chord tones present. We hear one “main note”—a chord tone—twice: at the beginning and the end.
double-neighbor-illustration
 
The two notes in the middle are both neighbor notes—one higher than the chord tone; one lower. This creates a little “illegal” hole in the middle. Why is it illegal? Because one of the primary rules in melody forbids leaping between non-chord tones. But here is an immensely popular figure that does just that! Perhaps this is why the Double Neighbor figure is one of the only patterns that is already universally recognized as a melodic figure? Theorists figured they’d better proactively name one of the only acceptable exceptions to one of their staunchest rules.
 
“Mona Lisa,” by Nat King Cole
mona-lisa melodic figures

“If I Can’t Have You,” by Shawn Mendes
cant-have-you melodic figures

“Waltz” from the Swan Lake Ballet by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
swan-lake-waltz melodic figures

the Double Third


The Double 3rd figure gets its name from the way it melodicizes a common method for harmonizing a simple scale in thirds. But rather than playing the thirds simultaneously, they are stretched out in time.
double-third-from-simple-scale

“Invention #1,” by Johann Sebastian Bach
invention-1-episode double third figure

“Cherish,” by Terry Kirkman
cherish double neighbor figure

“Sidewalks,” by The Weekend
sidewalks melodic figures

the Arpeggio Plus


The front part of this simple figure is an arpeggio. The “plus” note is a passing tone or neighbor note, added to make a smooth bridge to the upcoming note or figure.
 
“Morning” from Peer Gynt, by Edvard Grieg
morning from Peer Gynt melodic figures

“Hush, Little Baby,” a Carolina folk song
hush-little-baby melodic figures

“Come Sail Away,” by Styx (Dennis DeYoung)
come-sail-away melodic figures

the Leaping Scale

coming soon.

the Leaping Auxiliary


The color coding on the table of 24 common melodic figures shows three main categories of figures: scale, neighbor, and arpeggio. But as you look and listen closely to each of the 24 figures, you’ll hear some scale figures that include one or more leaps; You’ll notice that at least one neighbor figure contains a 3-note scale; And you’ll discover a fair bit of neighbor motion in figures that are mostly arpeggios.

In short, many of the melodic figures on the table are hybrids. But because hybridism is so rampant, there’s not much point in calling it out.

So how do we decide whether to put a melodic figure in one category or another? There are two things to look for. (1) Majority rules. Is most of the figure a scale, neighbor, or arpeggio? and (2) Behavior. Does the figure act like a scale, neighbor, or arpeggio?

The Leaping Auxiliary (L.Aux.) is 3/4 neighbor figure, plus a chordal leap. The auxiliary or the leap may come first. The leap can be in any direction relative to the auxiliary. Here are but a few possible combinations.

leaping-auxiliary-options

“Breakdown,” by Tom Petty
tom petty breakdown melodic figures

“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” by Otis Redding
sittin-on-the-dock-of-the-bay melodic figures

“Pavane,” by Gabriel Fauré

faure-pavane melodic figures

the Zigzag

coming soon

the Cambiata

coming soon

the Funnel

coming soon

For Readers Who’d Like Some Hands-On Experience

Challenge #1. Identify the three or four melodic figures you tend to use the most in your songs. (Maybe even overuse?) Then find two that you rarely or never use. Compose a single phrase with only your two figures. Put them together and take them apart like a kid playing with Legos. I’ll bet you anything that your new phrase has some features you don’t typically hear in your other songs.

Challenge #2. Revisit one of your “pretty good” melodies. Find a spot that seems boring. Try substituting your dull figure with a figure from the table that seems more interesting. No guarantee that you’ll suddenly have a masterpiece on your hands. But you’ll get a taste for one way to use melodic figures to revise a melody.

Also look around the rest of the FOM site. You’ll find blogs, videos, and other material that will challenge the ways you currently think about melody.

For Readers Who’d Like to Know the Considerations Used for Determining the Universal Melodic Patterns

[1] Each melodic pattern (figure) is a generic building block.  The same melodic figure can be used in countless pieces. This is altogether different from a motive, which is a uniquely-constructed “germ” that retains its identity as it generates theme(s) in a particular piece of music.

 [2] Each melodic figure has a prototypical version. Just as each chord has a “root position,” every melodic figure has a simplest version, especially regarding harmony and meter.  

[3] Melodic figures have a harmonic dimension. Just as we can locate chord tones and non-chord tones when we analyze a melody, we can also identify each note in a melodic figure as consonant or dissonant to the prevailing harmony. This is because each melodic figure is built upon a foundation (or exoskeleton) of chord tones. Non-chord tones, then, aren’t considered as “optional additions” but rather as integral members of the melody.

The harmonic prototype for each type of figure is the one that (a) begins on the root of a triad, and (b) spells out the remaining notes of the melodic figure in the closest position possible configuration. Each of the 24 melodic figures can begin on any chord tone and in either its ascending or descending version.

[4] Meter plays a role in establishing figure prototypes. The nature of melody (as distinct from harmony) is movement in time. Therefore, it makes a sense to consider each figure in its rhythmic context: noting where it “starts” and where it “goes.”

The prototypical melodic figure begins on a main beat with all of its notes leading to the upcoming main beat. This means that what you see on the table is an incomplete slice out of time. Each written figure leads to an upcoming note, which for most figures, are predictable.

[5] Each melodic figure is 3- to 4-notes long. Since meter plays a role in establishing figure prototypes, it makes sense that the prototypical length for a melodic figure will be 2, 3, or 4 notes, matching the most common number of subdivisions of the musical beat. Just one caveat. Two notes do not a figure make, just as two notes do not a chord (or cord) make. (I know, this point deserves more discussion than is appropriate here.)

A final word. All of these matters are explained in my eBook series, Figuring Out Melody, and will be detailed even further in the upcoming Fieldbook of Melodic Figures: an Idea Book for Composers.

A special note for readers of the Figuring Out Melody eBook

Want to go further? You CAN!

Each chapter in this 300-page eBook breaks down everything that effective composers do intuitively. Along the way, you’ll find plenty of step-by-step instructions to help you create the same effects in your own music.

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David Fuentes

David Fuentes

Professor Fuentes is a composer, author, teacher, and clinician. He brings over 30 years of teaching experience from institutions that include Berklee College of Music, the University of Iowa, Brandeis University, and Calvin University.

Dr. Fuentes’ music has been performed all across the world. It includes music for the classical concert stage, theater and musical theater, television, art installations, popular music genres, and the church.

A published author, his writing on composition, vocation and the arts, and the place of music in human flourishing has been influential in the development of music curriculum in an ever-changing world.

You can find samples of his music and writing on his personal website: davidfuentesmusic.com, which also provides a longer bio.

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