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!
To begin, let’s review the various meanings of the term “melodic figure.”
“Melodic figure” can refer to: 1. A short, notable bit of melody that recurs throughout a piece of music, also called a “motive.” 2. A stock melodic pattern used when improvising, also called a “lick.” 3. A group of notes that forms a smaller unit within a complete melody, akin to a phrase within a sentence. 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.
 “Figure” can refer to a motive.
A motive is a unique melodic fragment that a composer repeats and reworks to compose longer melodies. Saying that a motive “repeats” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s xeroxed. A repetition might start on a different note. Or the specific distance between notes might vary. (For example, a major 3rd turning into a minor 3rd, perfect 4th, or some other interval.)“Symphony #5,” I, Allegro con brio, first theme, by Ludwig van Beethoven
Motives offer three advantages to the composer. First, reusing a single pattern gives the music a deep sense of coherence. Coherence is why web designers choose and then stick with one color scheme to establish a company’s brand. Potential customers gain confidence when everything seems to fit together. So does a potential audience.
Second, artists throughout the ages have found that one of the best ways to spur creativity is to set up self-imposed constraints. “Hmmm… How many different things can I do with one tiny chunk-o-melody?” Beethoven did this all the time. In Symphony #5, for instance, uses the same 4-note motive to build nearly every melody in all four movements. And he wants us to notice! How do we know this? Because Beethoven makes his motive “sticky.” This is the third advantage, and it’s optional. A composer can engage the audience in a musical game of Where’s Waldo?“Symphony #5,” first movement, second theme, bars 59-66
One way that Beethoven “camouflages” his motive is to flatten it out.“Symphony #5,” third movement, second theme
I’ll say more about building a melody with a motive toward the end of this blog.
 A figure can be a stock melodic 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.”
Improvisation and composition share a lot in common. Although composition seems more deliberate (planned, worked out) than improvisation, a great deal of what we do remains subconscious. Improvisers draw on patterns they learn through practice; composers draw on patterns that we’ve internalized. I build on this notion in the next section.
 “Figure” can refer to the smaller parts of a whole melody.
“Normal melodies” (those without motives or licks) also break down into smaller units. And musicians often find it helpful to refer to them as we work.
For instance, 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
If I were to guess how Frampton wrote this song, this is what I’d say.
 He 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. Once he came up with a version of the melody he liked, that one became the melody he’d introduce to the world.“Show Me the Way,” imagining the composition process
Remember that our topic in this section addresses a figures’ definition as the smaller “patterns” or “phrases” within an entire melody. Now tell me, is it any coincidence that the groups of notes we called “figures” at the beginning of this section happen to form the same simple, familiar patterns that we find in thousands of other songs?
I’ve looked at thousands of songs (tens of thousands, actually) and wouldn’t you know it? The same two dozen figures keep showing up! I’ve collected and charted them in the following table. The figure names should demystify the labels in the earlier examples.
For an interactive version of this table, click this link.
 “Figure” can refer to a way to elaborate a simple framework.
There’s a technique in music called “figuration,” where a composer or improviser ornaments an underlying musical line (or “framework”) by adding decorative and usually repetitive patterns. We call each iteration of the pattern a figure. In this next excerpt, the ornamental figure is a scale. Notice how the scales enliven an underlying scale (marked in highlighted notes).“Piano Sonata,” K.545, I. by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
This next excerpt also uses scales to embellish a simple underlying framework.“Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” by Ed and Patsy Bruce
Despite its similarity to K. 545, no one would equate the Mozart scales with those in “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” It’s not due to any snobbery against country music. Quite the opposite. The first four bars of Mozart’s Sonata feel like the beginning of a fairy tale. (“Once upon a time, in a land far away… ”)But everything suddenly changes in bar 5, when out of nowhere, a crazed guitarist jumps onstage to play a shred solo. Our gut reaction feels something like: “Ok, so this outburst feels odd. But it probably won’t last long. I’ll bet Mozart will return to sanity soon enough.” Listen again with this in mind.
Now to be sure: the scales in “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies” are neither ornamental, showy, nor disruptive. They are integral to the main melodic activity that makes up the “story” of the song. Hang onto that thought.
“Norwegian Wood” Has the same framework as “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies.” And the first three bars of both songs are, for all practical purposes, identical. But while “Mamas” always uses the same 3-note scale figure between the framework notes, “Norwegian Wood” inserts a different figure each time.
Notice a common thread?
We’ve covered four definitions of figure so far. In each case we find some relationship between the figure and the framework. (Well, almost each case; we didn’t draw a connection between movies and frameworks, but just wait!)
A summary will help put it all context. Here’s how to make a melody from each type of melodic figure we’ve covered so far.
- The Mozart Sonata repeats ornamental figures over a melodic framework.
- In “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies,” we also have figures that repeat over a melodic framework. But these repeating figures are not ornamental.
- “Norwegian Wood” uses the same melodic framework as “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies.” However, it’s fleshed out with a different melodic figure each time.
- In “Show Me the Way,” the melodic framework is a chord progression, not a series of goal notes as it is in the three excerpts listed above. Here, Frampton hangs melodic figures on selected notes from the chord progression.
- When musicians improvise, they follow much the same process as Frampton. They use familiar figures or “licks” to construct a new melodic line build around an improvised framework drawn from a chord progression.
Figures and frameworks in Symphony #5
Because of the way I ordered this blogpost, it made most sense to introduce the concept of frameworks well after I presented the concept of motives. But it just so happens that one of the primary ways to compose with a motive involves using frameworks of all kinds. In this section, I’ll show just a few that Beethoven employs in the first movement of Symphony #5.
 Run the motive over a framework of chord tones.
Think of this as building a large-scale harmony with smaller bits of melody. The first time we hear the theme, those harmonies are two minor triads.“Symphony #5,” I, bars 6-13
At different places in the symphony, Beethoven uses the same additive process to build other harmonic structures. Here we hear another triad—a major triad this time. Notice that the chord tones that make up the framework cover a huge registral span.“Symphony #5,” bars 110-118
And here, the framework involves more chord tones. We now hear a diminished 7th harmony, or if you prefer, V9.“Symphony #5,” bars 25-33
 Run the motive over a framework made of an ascending scale.
And if you feel like being over-the-top dramatic, make it a long scale!“Symphony #5,” transition excerpt, bars 37-44
For each option below, I use the three figures from “Norwegian Wood” to build upon a new framework. Take a few moments to compare all the 3-Note Scales with each other to hear how each one approaches the upcoming melody note (in this case, always for the lyric, “girl”). This will give you an idea for how flexible melodic figures can be. Also make the same comparisons for the L.H.P and the Pendulum figures, as well.
 Make a melodic framework from an arpeggio.figures written over a framework of chord tones from G harmony
 Make a melodic framework from a scale.figures written over ascending and descending scales
 Make a melodic framework from a series of intervals.
I took this idea for a framework from “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies.” But rather than dropping a third each time, I put the framework notes a 5th apart. Not so sure it works, but it was a good exercise. Of the examples that I worked out for this demonstration, this one the least singable because of the range.figures written over a series of descending 5ths
 Make a melodic framework from chord tones in a progression.
As I suggested during the discussion of Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way,” songwriters unknowingly create a flexible framework by favoring certain chord tones from the progression at hand, and then find a cool way to get there.figures written over a framework based on the “Axis of Awesome” progression
About the last framework note (C on beat 2 of the word “me”). It’s the only framework note that’s not on a strong beat. What’s happening here? Going right to the C on the downbeat sounded too hokey. So I used the same trick everyone else uses in this situation. Add an appoggiatura. That doesn’t change the framework note, it just delays its arrival.
Do all melodic figures (melodic building blocks) need a framework?
No. Of course not. Sorry if I gave that impression.
There are many ways to use melodic figures as building blocks. Focusing on frameworks happens to be the simplest way to see the similarities between all the types of melodic figures.
Let’s close with just one situation where melodic figures don’t bother with a framework.
Think about the last time you were severely frustrated. Blindingly frustrated. You couldn’t explain why. You couldn’t even talk. About all you could do was growl and shake your fists. Now listen to this spot in Symphony #5.“Symphony #5,” first movement, just before the first recapitulation, bars 240-252
As a composition teacher, I’ve had many a student balk at the thought of doing anything as simple as just repeating one idea over and over. They silently fear, “What will the audience think of me?”
It doesn’t seem that Beethoven had any fear of sounding like a simpleton.
Here’s a question you should be asking right now. “What does this have to do with motives or figures? Aren’t there dozens of ways to create the emotion of anger in music?”
By limiting your options – in this case, by using a motive – you are far more likely to find a satisfactory solution quickly than if you leave yourself too many options.
Musicians use the term “melodic figure” loosely to talk about a variety of ways to group notes together—motives, licks, elaborative swashes, and the smaller phrases within a larger bit of melody. All of these designations have one thing in common: each can be used as a building block to create a melody. And figuring out how each type works can offer the composer a great advantage.
As we looked through the familiar kinds of figures—motives, licks, elaborative swashes, and the smaller phrases within a larger bit of melody—we also saw a largely-unfamiliar kind. It seems that there is a “vocabulary” of universal patterns (figures) from which all melodies draw. If this is true (or even likely), it warrants further exploration, no?