We’ve got a slight problem. Of the four definitions above, only the first three are currently in use. My work with melodic figures over the past three decades focuses heavily on the fourth, which I made up. Sort of. It’s new, but not entirely new. It draws key aspects from the first three and applies them more broadly. The new definition that emerges speaks to something we all intuit, but haven’t yet found words for. What is a melodic figure? A melodic figure is a building block for melody.
 “Melodic figure” can refer to a striking bit of melody.
“Figure” is a synonym for “motive.” A motive is a melodic fragment that a composer repeats and reworks to compose longer melodies.
“Symphony #5,” I, Allegro con brio, first theme, by Ludwig van Beethoven
Motives offer three advantages. First, reusing a single pattern gives the music a deep sense of coherence. We use motives for the same reason that web designers choose and then stick with one color scheme to establish a company’s brand. Second, one of the best ways to spur creativity is to set up puzzles for yourself. “How many different things can I do with one tiny chunk-o-melody?”
In Symphony #5, for instance, Beethoven 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 conspicuous (“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
At several points in the symphony, Beethoven “flattens out” his 4-note germ so we hear only its rhythm. Fair game with a motive!
“Symphony #5,” third movement, second theme
 “Melodic figure” can refer to the smaller parts of a whole melody.
“Normal melodies” (those without motives) also contain 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
 “Melodic figure” can refer to an “elaboration.”
There’s a technique in music called “figuration,” where we ornament an underlying musical line 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
The next excerpt also uses scales to embellish a simple underlying pattern.
“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 scales in the Mozart 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 make a profound, innocent statement. But everything changes in bar 5, when out of nowhere, a crazed guitarist jumps onstage to play a shred solo. We patiently wait for the showoff to finish his schtick so we can get on with the rest of the musical story.
But the scales in “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies” are in no way ornamental (nor showy). They fully incorporate themselves into the main story. Hang onto that thought.
“Norwegian Wood” Has the same foundation as “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies.” (Compare the highlighted notes in both examples.) And both songs have the same rhythm. But rather than using a scale figure between the foundation notes (as “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies” does), “Norwegian Wood” inserts a different pattern (figure) each time.
“Norwegian Wood,” by Lennon and McCartney
A glaring omission in music composition.
Here’s what I want to know. Why don’t we have a method that describes how to use figures to compose a melody upon an underlying structure? That underlying structure might be a foundation of “guide tones” (as in “Norwegian Wood” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies”). Or it might be a chord progression, a rhythmic pattern, or lyrics.
Similarly, even though we recognize that every melody breaks down into component parts, we haven’t tried to explain how those smaller parts fit together. And though we find motivic repetition fascinating, we currently have no method to recommend how to use unexceptional melodic patterns as building blocks.
And this is what lead me to believe that each of the standard definitions of “melodic figure” suggest something beyond a particular application.
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From this amalgamation I get my new definition: “A melodic figure is a building block for composing melody.” Short and sweet. I don’t need to include all the statements in the right column because they follow naturally from the idea of composing with melodic building blocks.
So there you have it: a definition of melodic figure that captures what we’ve always sensed, but never had words for.
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