If you’ve ever sensed that certain melodic patterns (a.k.a.”figures”) recur from song to song, you’re not alone. And your hunch was right! Every melody you know comes from just 24 melodic patterns or “figures.” Each one is 3- to 4-notes long (in its prime version), 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
After a three-decade “archaeological dig” through over 10,000 melodies, I’m ready to offer the following interactive table. Click on any figure to read a short description. You’ll also hear each figure in three excerpts from well-established songs in various styles.
Explore the table in any order you wish, though it’s recommended to start with the 3-Note Scale.
the 24 Universal Melodic Figure Patterns
(the building blocks of melody)
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 basis of harmonic systems throughout the world. We use them to build chords, tune instruments, and harmonize songs around a campfire with our friends. The 3-Note Scale takes the very essence of harmony and turns it into a little melody.
“But,” you protest, “it’s so plain. Step-step up; or step-step down! How can I write an interesting melody from such a nothing?”
That’s like asking how such astounding architecture can arise from combining rectangles, or so many life forms from the carbon atom. Wherever we look in our universe, we find that the simplest building blocks are often the most versatile. And when we explore the properties of a supposedly simple building block (which we don’t have time to do here), we quickly discover that we have grossly underestimated its inherent glory.
Here are three excerpts that use the 3-Note Scale. Here and throughout the table, the figure under scrutiny is highlighted in blue each time it occurs. It's impossible to give a full sense of all a melodic figure can do in just three experts. The hope is to pique your interest and imagination.
“Blowin’ In the Wind,” by Bob Dylan
“Cool,” by the Jonas Brothers
“Piano Concerto #3,” by Sergei Rachmaninoff
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.
“Silent Night,” by Franz Xavier Gruber
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
“Toreador Song,” by Georges Bizet
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
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
“Sesame Street,” by Franz Xavier Gruber
“On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” by Johann Strauss Jr.
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
“Penny Lane,” by Lennon & McCartney
“Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns Die Stimme,” by J.S. Bach
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
“Iron Man,” by Black Sabbath
“Back to You,” by Selena Gomez
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.”
“Over the Rainbow,” by Harold Arlen
“Sonata in D,” K.576 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
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).
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
“La Donna È Mobile,” from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi
“Girl from Ipanema,” by Antonio Carlos Jobim
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
“Honesty,” by Billy Joel
“Adagio,” from Symphony #2 in E minor, by Sergei Rachmaninov
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.)
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
“Harry Potter Theme,” by John Williams
“Symphony No.8” II, by Ludwig van Beethoven
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.”
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
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Freddie Mercury
“Voices of Spring,” by Johann Strauss, Jr.
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.
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!
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.
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
“Every Breath You Take,” by Sting
“Minuet” from the String Quintet in E Majorby Luigi Boccherini
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.
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.
By far, most arch figures equally-proportioned leaps, as reflected in the excerpts below.
“I’ll Fly Away,” by Albert E. Brumley
“Royals,” by Lourde
“Surprise Symphony,” by Franz Joseph Haydn
The pendulum has two notes that move (or “swing”) by step as if swinging from a middle “fixed” note.
“Norwegian Wood,” by Lennon & McCartney
“Eastside,” by Benny Blanco, Halsey, and Khalid Robinson
“Juliet’s Waltz,” by Charles Gounod
the Leaping Neighbor
The Auxiliary figure is the quintessential neighbor figure. Its non-chord tone sits snugly between two chord tones, resulting in an auxiliary note that feels fully integrated. The result is a cute little bump or divot in the surface of a melody.
In contrast, the Leaping Neighbor figure rips a noticeable little hole in a melodic line. Actually, depending on the size of the leap, the hole can open a wide expanse.
“My Favorite Things,” by Rogers & Hammerstein
“I Love You,” by Billie Eilish
“Triumphal March,” from Aida, by Giuseppe Verdi
“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
“Feeling Groovy,” by Paul Simon
“Violin Concerto in E Minor” by Felix Mendelssohn
the Double Neighbor
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.
“Invention #1,” by Johann Sebastian Bach
“Cherish,” by Terry Kirkman
“Sidewalks,” by The Weekend
the Arpeggio Plus
the building blocks of melody
the Leaping Scale
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.
“Breakdown,” by Tom Petty
“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” by Otis Redding
“Pavane,” by Gabriel Fauré
For readers new to FiguringOutMelody.com, consider this table as a “showcase” or introduction to the world of melodic figures. Please explore the rest of this site for more information.
For Readers Who’d Like Hands-On Experience With These Patterns Today!
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. See what happens when you incorporate material you wouldn’t normally use.
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.
For Readers Who’d Like a Brief Explanation of Considerations Used for Determining the Universal Melodic Patterns
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.