Nearly all musicians use the term “melodic figure,” though not everyone means the same thing when they do. Some use it to designate something specific. Others use it more broadly. But with precious few exceptions, we only use the term “melodic figure” to refer to melodies that already exist. It’s rare to find anyone who explains how to use melodic figures to create melodies.
Let’s fix that!
“Melodic figure” can refer to: 1. A group of notes that forms a smaller unit within a complete melody, akin to a phrase within a sentence. 2. A short, notable bit of melody that recurs throughout a piece of music, also called a “motive.” 3. A stock melodic pattern used when improvising, also called a “lick.” 4. A decorative and usually repetitive pattern that fills out an underlying musical line, also called “figuration.” 5. A building block for composing melody.
Four of the five definitions will likely sound familiar. But if you haven’t come across the notion of a melodic figure as a building block (#5), it’s because I made it up. Sort of.
Although nothing in the first four applications suggests that they might offer methods for building melodies, it turns out that they actually do—at least when we look at them from a composer’s perspective.
 “Melodic figure” can refer to the smaller parts of a whole melody.
Let’s say that you and I plan to cover the song “Show Me the Way” for a high school reunion. When we rehearse, I suggest, “You sing the first figure, and I’ll sing the next one. Then we’ll both sing the last three.” You’d know what I meant, even if I didn’t draw brackets on your lead sheet.“Show Me the Way,”, by Peter Frampton
How do “segments of a melody” function as building blocks?
 Frampton likely started with the lyrics.
I wonder how you’re feeling, There’s ringing in my ears, and no one to relate to, except the sea.
 Then he laid down a simple progression in D (indicated below).
 Finally, he probably sang the lyrics over the chords—essentially improvising—aiming for chief chord tones. The “melodic figures” he “invented” were patterns he’d internalized over the course of his life.“ Show Me the Way,” imagining the composition process
 “Melodic figure” can refer to a motive (a.k.a. motif).
The word “motive” has two basic meanings in music. One is general; the other specific.
 In the general application, motive refers to any smaller bit of a melody, much as I described in the previous section, but with one important distinction.
We typically use the term motive to talk about the smaller parts within a melody that repeat, as in the example below. It’s standard practice to use letters to mark similarities and differences between motives.“Show Me the Way” chorus, by Peter Frampton
Saying that a melodic idea “repeats” doesn’t mean that it’s xeroxed. A repetition might start on a different note. Or it might be varied slightly. For example, notice that ‘b1’ (above) indicates that the ‘b’ idea repeats with variation.
Technically, the figures from the verse of this song don’t qualify as motives because nothing repeats. (And in such cases, it doesn’t make much sense to use letters to show that all of the motives are different. But hey, if that’s your thing, knock yourself out.)“Show Me the Way” verse, by Peter Frampton
 There is a more specific way to use motives. Some composers take a short, conspicuous bit of melody and, by repeating and reworking it, create longer melodies. For example, the introduction and first theme of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony use but one single 4-note motive.“Symphony #5,” I, Allegro con brio, first theme, by Ludwig van Beethoven
When a composer uses a motive in this way, we say that he or she “develops” the motive. Having taught music for several decades, I know that the concept of “motivic development” can be confusing.
In motivic development, it’s not so much that the motive itself becomes more fully formed or elaborate. Instead, the motive becomes an adaptable building block for creating different sorts of music throughout the piece. Here’s an analogy. In a one-man (or woman) play, the same actor performs multiple roles. For example Sir Patrick Stewart, whom most people know as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Wars: Next Generation,” wanted to challenge himself as an actor, so he developed and starred in a one-man Broadway production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” where he plays Scrooge, Tiny Tim, the Three Ghosts and 40 additional characters.
Beethoven frequently made his motives play multiple roles. “Symphony #5” is a prime example because he uses the same 4-note motive to build nearly every melody in all four movements. In the excerpt we just heard, Beethoven opens the symphony by stating the motive twice in a way that feels like an explosive revelation. Then with hardly a pause, he interweaves his motives into a theme that tries to hold back its sense of urgency, but ultimately cannot.
Just a bit later in the same movement, the motive takes on a majestic role.“Symphony #5,” first movement, second theme, bars 59-66
And much later in the symphony, Beethoven “disguises” his motive by flattening it out.“Symphony #5,” third movement, second theme
If you’re interested in additional examples of motivic development in Beethoven’s “Symphony #5,” here’s a link.
How do motives function as like building blocks?
In the general application of the term “motive,” where a composer uses repetition and contrast within a phrase, he or she will choose their building blocks (figures or combinations of figures) accordingly.
In motivic development, a composer takes one building block (figure) and creates an entire phrase, section, or piece by varying and recombining it with other versions of itself.
 A melodic figure can be a stock pattern used when improvising.
Part of learning to improvise means getting dozens of basic patterns under your fingers so that you can string them together on the spot to make a new melody. These patterns are also called “licks” or “figures.” The most famous lick, known as “The Lick,” comes from jazz, though when you click on the sound file, you’ll hear that it’s not just jazzers who have fun with it.“The Lick.”
How do licks function as building blocks?
Improvisation and composition share a lot in common. Improvisers draw on specific patterns (licks) they learn intentionally through practice; composers draw on patterns that we’ve internalized. In either case, don’t we want our figure combinations to sound both cohesive and free?
 Musicians often use melodic figures to elaborate a simple framework.
There’s a technique in music called “figuration,” where a musician ornaments an underlying framework—most often a scale—with a repetitive pattern.“Piano Sonata,” K.545, I. by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Figuration allows a performer to show off. Nearly every style has its own version. For example, the “shred guitar solo.”
Now when we expand on the basic principle of figuration—melodic figures over a simple framework—we can ditch the showboating and come up with some cool melodies!“Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” by Ed and Patsy Bruce
“Norwegian Wood” has the same framework as “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies.” But while “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies” always uses the same 3-note scale figure between the framework notes, “Norwegian Wood” inserts a different figure each time.“Norwegian Wood,” by Lennon & McCartney
How do melodic figures function as building blocks when used with a melodic framework?
Every melody has a framework whether we realize it or not, though we needn’t think about it to compose effectively. But when we do, we turn composing into a game. “Hmmm, what are some cool ways to get from this goal note to the next one?” This is not only great fun, we inevitably come up with melodies we wouldn’t have invented if we had simply gone with our first inclination.
I explore figures and frameworks elsewhere. If you’d like to discover more about how they work in “Norwegian Wood” and Beethoven’s “Symphony #5,” check out this blog. If you’d REALLY like to go deep with figures and frameworks, check out my eBook, Figuring Out Melody.
If you’re curious about the names of the figures I’ve marked in “Norwegian Wood,” keep reading!
 A melodic figure is a building block for composing melody.
Every melody you know is made from just 24 melodic figures. Old melodies, recent melodies, famous melodies, even your own melodies. Everyone who writes a melody draws from the 24 figures you see here whether they know it or not, whether they mean to or not.
Musicians pick up melodic figures in the same way we learn to talk: over time through exposure. And like there are millions of ways to combine words to express your thoughts, there are millions of ways to combine melodic figures to express your feelings.
The graphic below is interactive. Click on each figure and you’ll get pop up with a short explanation and three examples.
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.
“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
“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 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).
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
“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 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.
“Hava Nagila,” an Hassidic folk tune
“Stand By Me,” by Ben E. King, Jerry Lieber, and Mike Stoller
“The Cancan,” from Orpheus in the Underworld, by Jacques Offenbach
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.
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
“If I Can’t Have You,” by Shawn Mendes
“Waltz” from the Swan Lake Ballet by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
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 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
“Hush, Little Baby,” a Carolina folk song
“Come Sail Away,” by Styx (Dennis DeYoung)
the Leaping Scale
The Leaping Scale is a 4-note figure made from two elements: a 3-Note Scale plus a leap to a different chord tone. (if the isolated chord tone matched the first note of the figure it would be a Roll.) Either the scale or the leap can come first. The leap can be small or large. And the direction of the leap can match the direction of the scale or contradict it.
Two factors make the Leaping Scale harmonically vivid. First, the outer notes of the 3-Note Scale are chord tones. And second, the leap occurs between two chord tones. Typically, this means that each Leaping Scale contains a root, third, and fifth.
“Old Town Road,” by Lil’ Naz
“Prelude,” from Suite #2, for unaccompanied ‘cello by J.S. Bach, bars 26-31
“The Raiders March,” by John Williams
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 treating it as anything special.
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 as 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 or last. 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
The Zigzag figure changes direction after every note, making it the most indirect way to arrange the notes of a single harmony. Now typically in figuration, the more times a melodic figure changes direction within itself, the more complicated it sounds and feels. This is certainly true of the other two figures that change direction after every note: the Double Neighbor and the Double Third. But for some reason, the Zigzag figure usually makes a melody sound more playful than elaborate.
“Your Smiling Face,” by James Taylor
“Trumpet Concerto in Eb Major,” III by Franz Joseph Haydn
“Die, Die, Die,” by the Avett Brothers