What is a Melodic Figure?


In music, the term “melodic figure” refers to the smaller groups, gestures, or patterns that make up a melody. It can apply to five different situations.

me•lo•dic fig•ure (mĕ-lŏdʼĭk fĭgʼyǝr) n. 1. Any group of notes that forms a smaller gesture within a melody, akin to a clause or phrase within a sentence. 2. A short melodic pattern with a recognizable rhythm and profile, used to compose an entire phrase, section, or movement; 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 distinct yet ubiquitous melodic pattern, common to dozens, even thousands of melodies.

When we look closely at each definition, we see that they’re hardly synonyms. Each one describes some special way that the littler bits of melody can behave. Still, some musicians see no problem in using the term “figure” as a catchall phrase. And that’s a fair choice. But for anyone who wants to add more variety to their melodic toolbox, this blog will help.

[1]   “Melodic figure” can refer to any group of notes that forms a smaller gesture within a melodic phrase.

Let’s say that you and I plan to cover the song “Lean On Me” for an upcoming high school reunion. During our run-through, I suggest, “You sing the first two figures, then I’ll sing the next two.” You’d know what I meant, even if I didn’t draw brackets on your lead sheet.

“Lean On Me,” by Bill Withers 

lean-on-me-chorus melodic figures

Every melody is made of a series of smaller “gestures.” The term “gesture” fits because each distinct cluster of notes within a melody (each figure) feels expressive in the same ways that a speaker’s hand gestures do. Melodic gestures, like hand gestures, amplify the meaning and emotion of the speaker’s or singer’s words.

Try for yourself. Sing the chorus. As you do, make hand gestures that would emphasize what the words would say if you spoke them. (Really. Stop reading and try it. And put your heart into it!)

Now sing the phrase again, this time holding your hands and body perfectly still. Most people find that the motionless performance lacks “conviction.” Do you?

Let’s look more closely at the actual notes. Three out of four gestures rework the same three pitches: C-D-E. But the gesture for “I’ll be your friend” grabs a new set of notes: C-B-A-G. In this context, moving to a new set of notes confirms what the words hope to highlight. “Hey, friend, I’m not like everyone else. I won’t let you down. Not me. I got you.” Not only that, by reaching down deep to the low G on “friend,” the rising promise to help you carry on feels ever more exuberant. And more believable.

A gesture uses motion to communicate, in life, and in music. As the notes in a melody move, they trace out little shapes that harness the same sorts of emotional energy as the gestures we make with our hands as we talk. In other words, melodic gestures and hand gestures arise from the same need to express ourselves beyond what words alone can do.

[2]  “Melodic figure” can refer to a short pattern used to compose an entire phrase, section, or movement; also called a “motive.”

There are two ways to use the term “motive.” The first application refers to a very specific way to build an entire composition out of just one or two recognizable patterns. The second application is simply a way to any number of similarities and contrasts within a phrase or section. Let’s begin with the first application.

The concept of a motif in the arts originally came from architecture, where a stylistic element or geometric shape appears repeatedly in different proportions and positions to achieve a sense of unity.


But a motive requires more than mere repetition. Loop-based songs (e.g., a good number of EDM and rap songs) use repetition incessantly, but not motivically. What do I mean by motivically? Motivic repetition reworks a single element (a.k.a. a “germ”) to create different TYPES of music: melodies with different functions.  

For example, in the opening bars Symphony #5, Beethoven uses the same 4-note motive to create an edgy introduction and then a more balanced statement-and-response theme. Finally, he repeats the motive directly several times in a row to build an incredible amount of explosive pressure as he sets up the cadence.

“Symphony #5,” I, Allegro con brio, first theme, by Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven 5th symphony motives

But wait, there’s more!

A few seconds later, we hear the motive made into this transitional line as it strives to climb.
beethoven-5-ascending-scale melodic figures And one final example. Just a bit later, Beethoven reworks his motive into a very different melody with a unmistakable regal air.
beethoven-5th-theme-2 melodic figures

Composers in all styles have used motives to compose melodies. Listen to how Burt Bacharach uses a single 3-note motive in “Close to You.” Everything except the melody for “suddenly appear” comes from the rising shape of the first three notes.

“Close to You,” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David 


Here again, we hear the motive in three different ways: [1] As a pickup with fermatas, [2] with upbeat rhythm, and [3] starting on the beat. In the first half of the melody, the singer poses a question, which makes pickups and upbeats a fitting choice. Then, in the second half, she makes confident, affectionate statements, affirmed by starting each gesture on the beat.

At the beginning of this section on motives, I mentioned that mere repetition is not enough to qualify a figure as a motive. I’d like to end with an analogy.

Here’s a photo of “La Casa de las Botellas” (the House of Bottles) in Puerto Iguazú, near the border between Brazil and Argentina. The builder has used plastic bottles to construct the entire structure: not only every wall—which would be cool—but also the portico, some (optional) stairs, a walled-in front yard, the roof, windows and doors. Not only that, but inside the house…

house made entirely of bottles

… we find a bottle bedroom, complete with a bottle bed and a bottle-supported shelving unit!

a bed made entirely of bottles

Now let’s look at much simpler way to build a house from bottles. The “Maisons de Bouteilles” (Houses of Bottles) on Prince Edward Island in Nova Scotia only use bottles in one way: to make walls. There’s no bottle door and no bottle roof. Still pretty cool, but I hope you can see that there’s no bottle “motif” carried throughout the entire structure.

house made entirely of bottles

With this in mind, listen to “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Yes, we hear two recurring elements, but they don’t get reworked in the way the motives in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or “Close to You” do.

“Oh, Pretty Woman,” by Roy Orbison 

pretty-woman-motives melodic figures

So this is an example of the second, far more common way to use the term “motive.” I wish that we musicians were a lot more precise with our terminology. But as it turns out, the concept of motive is among the most confusing in music.

[3] “Melodic figure” can refer to a stock pattern used when improvising; also called a “lick.”

Learning to improvise means getting dozens of basic patterns under your fingers so that you can string them together to make a new melody on the spot. Such melodic patterns are called “licks” more often than “figures.” The most famous lick, known simply 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.”

The Lick
But not all licks have such a quotable shape, rhythm, and number of notes. In fact, most don’t. Some licks are more loosely based on scales, broken chords, or simple repeated patterns, often involving grace notes or bent/scooped notes. Each style has its own characteristic way of shaping licks, as do many players. For example, here I compare one of B.B. King’s most famous blues licks with a country lick. Both are based around an Ab6 chord, yet their stylistic features make them sound nothing alike.

three-various-licks melodic figures

Improvisation and composition share a lot in common in that both draw from pre-existing patterns. Improvisers draw on “licks” they learn intentionally through practice. Composers draw on patterns that we’ve unintentionally internalized through exposure, over time. In both cases, improvisers and composers create figures/gestures/licks that feel structured, yet free; personal, yet culturally relevant.

[4]  “Melodic figure” can refer to a melodic pattern that elaborates a simple framework; also called “figuration.”

Theres a technique in music called figuration,where a musician ornaments an underlying framework—most often a scale—with a repetitive pattern. I’ve highlighted the underlying framework in the example below.

“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, take the “shred guitar solo.”

One day, it dawned on me that melodic figuration is not only a specific technique, but it’s also a principle. I started noticing that quite a few melodies add simple figures around a framework of chord tones. Take this song, for example.

“Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” by Ed and Patsy Bruce


OK, so the 3-note scales in “Mamas” are nowhere nearly as elaborate as the 14-note scales in the Mozart sonata. Even so, we’re met with a clear framework fleshed out with melodic figures, no?

And we can take this principle one step further. What if we elaborated a framework with a different figure each time? (Don’t fret about the figure names, which I’ll explain momentarily.) 

“Norwegian Wood,” by Lennon & McCartney

norweigian wood melodic figures

In case you didn’t notice that “Norwegian Wood” has the same framework as “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies” (except for the last note), this next graphic makes it easy to compare how each song fills in its framework.

norwegian-cowboys melodic figures

Doesn’t every melody have an underlying framework of chord tones? And as we compose or improvise, don’t we subconsciously use those chord tones as goals? Sometimes we connect them directly, as in every 3-Note Scale in “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies. Other times, we intentionally take a detour, as certain figures in “Norwegian Wood” and this short phrase from a Charlie Parker solo.

“A typical Charlie Parker phrase”  

charlie-parker-phrase melodic figures

Notice how smoothly Parker uses figures to connect the first three goal notes. But later, to add complexity, he avoids the most predictable route, as I’ve marked below. (And if you look back to “Norwegian Wood,” you’ll notice that it also starts predictably and gets more obtuse as the phrase evolves.)


[5] “Melodic figure” can refer to a distinct yet ubiquitous melodic pattern, common to dozens, even thousands of melodies.

I have yet to meet a musician who hasn’t noticed that the melodic patterns in one song have a way of popping up in several others. This phenomenon helps explain why our teachers make us practice our scales and broken chords as “warmup” exercises. And quite a few instructors have gone even further, devising “etudes,” “methods,” and “studies” to cover common melodic figures that don’t quite qualify as scales or arpeggios. Do an internet search and you can find several free ones for any instrument you can name. For instance, Clarke’s Technical Studies for the Coronet (1912) is still used widely today, and not just for classical cornet and trumpet players. Jazz players find its patterns helpful when learning to improvise.

For a taste of what it offers, here’s Clarke’s second study (with transpositions #28-43 omitted), followed by its etude.


Ask yourself how many times you’ve played (or written) the figure in Clarke’s study: a 3-note scale and a small leap back to the first note. And that pattern has four versions (all which appear in “Etude II”). The leap can come before the scale. And either the scale or the leap can ascend or descend. Clarke’s etude only deviates from this pattern in the second to the last bar, and those patterns are familiar ones, as well.

Now, even if you’ve never habitually practiced etudes, you’ve internalized the basic patterns of melody. How do I know? Because musicians learn the melodic vocabulary the same way we learn to speak: through exposure, over time. The table below is my attempt to catalog the most common 3- 4-note melodic figures in their most basic versions. (You can find the figure from Clarke’s “Second Study”—the “Roll”—roughly in the middle of the table.) Notice that the table is interactive. Click on any figure to read a short description and hear it in three musical excerpts.

the 24 Universal Melodic Figures
the building blocks of melody

the 24 universal melodic figures interactive table
the 3-Note Scale the Auxiliary the Arpeggio the Run the Trill/Oscillator the Arc the 3NP the Pivot Little Holy Phillip the Return the Crazy Driver the Little Dipper the Parkour the Vault the Roll the Double Neighbor the Double Third the Pendulum the Leaping Scale the Leaping Auxiliary the Pendulum Auxiliary the Funnel the Cambiata the Zigzag

the 3-Note Scale

3-note scale melodic figures/>

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

“Cool,” by the Jonas Brothers
cool Jonas brothers melodic figures
“Piano Concerto #3,” by Sergei Rachmaninoff
Rachmaninoff piano concerto melodic figures

the Auxiliary

the auxiliary melodic figures/>
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

arpeggio example
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

run melodic figure example
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.”

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

“Overkill,” by Colin Hay

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

the Trill/Oscillator

Here’s a case where we have two very similar figures that count as one. (The other instance is the Parkour figures.)

The Trill. Outside of FOM, a trill is a melodic embellishment produced by rapidly alternating two notes a step or semitone apart. And the term trill also applies to the way that speakers of certain languages roll their R’s (always with great gusto). We include it as a melodic figure because so many melodies use a slowed-down version of the alternating stepwise action.

The Oscillator. When we say that something oscillates, we mean that it swings back and forth in a steady motion. If you hope to cool an entire room with a small fan, get one that oscillates. The difference between a Trill and an Oscillator is that every other note in a Trill is a neighbor note, while every other note in an Oscillator is another chord tone.
The three samples here show two 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. The third excerpt is an example of an Oscillator.

“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

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

the Arc

the arch melodic figure model
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.
By far, most arch figures equally-proportioned leaps, as reflected in the excerpts below.

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

the 3NP

3NP model
3PN stands for a “3-Note Pentatonic” scale. Or more accurately, a 3-note slice of a pentatonic scale, because as you probably know, pentatonic scales (in either their major or minor versions) contain five notes, not three.
Notice that the pentatonic scale is a little wonky, what with its odd gaps every few notes. (Most “scales” move by step.)
We can divide a pentatonic scale into five different 3-note groups. When we do, four of those groups include one of the gaps illustrated above.
Note the similarities between the 3NP and its more symmetrical cousin, the 3NS (3-Note Scale). Whereas the 3-Note Scale always spans a third from first to last note, the 3NP always spans a 4th.

“Youngblood,” by 5 Seconds of Summer
“La Donna È Mobile,” from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi
“Girl from Ipanema,” by Antonio Carlos Jobim

the Pivot

pivot model
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 just “picture it.” Try to feel its kinetic momentum: moving one direction, then darting off in the opposite direction.

"Up Where We Belong" uses Pivot figures to get us to feel we are at the upper limits of what is possible.

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

Don't miss the irony as Billy Joel sets the word "honesty" to an evasive melodic gesture.

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

It's hard to express melancholy without sounding sentimental. Yet Rachmaninov pulls it off here by starting each Pivot figure as a strong dissonance.

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

Little Holy Phillip

little holy philip mpodel
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

return model
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 “middle” note, counting note #3 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 model
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 Major by Luigi Boccherini
boccherini-minuet melodic figures

the Little Dipper

arpeggio plus model

The bulk of this figure is an arpeggio. The “plus” note is a passing tone or neighbor note, most often added at the end to make a smooth bridge to the upcoming note or figure (though occasionally, the non-chord tone can come at the front).

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

“Ring, Ring the Banjo,” by Stephen Foster
ring-ring-the-banjo melodic figures

“Morning” from Peer Gynt, by Edvard Grieg
morning from Peer Gynt melodic figures

the Parkour

parkour mmodel

The term “Parkour” comes from the French word “parcours,” meaning “the way through,” or “the path.” If you take this to imply “moving along a logical path to find the quickest way from point A to point B,” you’re missing a key element of Parkour the sport. The Parkour practitioner intentionally looks for obstacles to jump, bounce, or scoot over, around, or under. And those who use the barriers to execute the flashiest and most difficult stunts earn greatest respect among their peers.

Melody doesn’t always take the most logical route from point A to point B, either. We can sense a strong gymnastic spirit in the two versions of the Parkour figures illustrated below. In each case, the first and third notes are always chord tones, and there’s a clear and direct route between them. That direct route is indicated by a shadowed notehead.

As you study the Bounce and the Pounce, don’t just try to memorize the formulas. No, no, no! Instead, picture yourself crouching and leaping, or leaping then shuffling your feet to regain your balance.


“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 Vault

The Vault has two things in common with the two Parkour figures (the Bounce and the Pounce) 1. It’s a 3-note figure that takes an indirect route between the two outer notes, typically chord tones.* and 2. It contains a step and a leap, though not always in that order.
The main difference from the Parkour figures (the Bounce and the Pounce) is that the Vault’s step lies inside the outer notes of the figure.

“Hush, Little Baby,” by Carolina folk song
Hush Little Baby melodic figures

“Maria,” from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein
Maria melodic figures

“The Swan,” by Camille Saint-Saens

*At least the outside notes are usually two chord tones. Remember, with figuration, we focus on shape, which means that sometimes, chord tones and non-chord tones can get redistributed.

the Roll

the roll melodic figure example
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

double neighbor model
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
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

double third model
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
invention-1-episode double third figure

“Cherish,” by Terry Kirkman
cherish double neighbor figure

“Sidewalks,” by The Weekend
sidewalks melodic figures

the Pendulum

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

“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 Leaping Scale

leaping scale model

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.

leaping scale options

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
old-town-road melodic figures

“Prelude,” from Suite #2, for unaccompanied ‘cello by J.S. Bach, bars 26-31

bach cello suite melodic figures

“The Raiders March,” by John Williams

the Leaping Auxiliary

leaping auxiliary model
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
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 Pendulum Auxiliary

pendulum auxiliary model

The Pendulum Auxiliary is an amalgamation of two 3-note figures: the Auxiliary and the Pendulum.

“What’s Goin’ On,” by Marvin Gaye, Al Cleveland, and Renaldo Benson

“Hold Me Now,” by Tom Bailey, Alannah Curie, and Joe Leeway

“The Hallelujah Chorus,” by George Frideric Handel

hallelujah-chorus-pendulum auxiliary

the Funnel

funnel melodic figure model
The Funnel offers some of the most convincing evidence that composers imagine shapes as we compose. How else can we explain the ever-narrowing series of leaps that make up this figure? Perhaps as a backward extension of the Little Holy Philip? Keep that in mind as you listen to “Someday My Prince Will Come,”  where the pattern stretches back even further.


We classify the Funnel as an arpeggio because it leaps until it runs out of room, not because it spells any particular harmony. In fact, the Funnel has the most ambiguous harmonic structure of all the figures, which is to say that it doesn’t fit into any particular harmony. Even if we find a way to separate chord tones from non-chord tones in one instance of the Funnel (and good luck with that!), it's not likely to work out the same way in other appearances.

“Someday My Prince Will Come,” by Larry Morey & Frank Churchill
someday-my-prince-will-come melodic figure funnel

“Dreams,” by Stevie Nicks
dreams-stevie-nicks funnel figure

“Great is Thy Faithfulness,” by William Runan and Thomas Chisholm
great-is-thy-faithfulness funnel figure

the Cambiata

cambiata melodic figure model

Most of the names for the 24 Universal Melodic Figures have a mnemonic function. The name tells you something about the figure that not only helps you remember it but use it. Not so with the Cambiata figure. The figure traces back to 17th-century Italy and derives its name from an Italian verb meaning “to change.” If it were clear to anyone what sort of change occurs within this figure, that might end up being helpful. But no such luck. I only use the name Cambiata because that’s what other people call it, which brings up an interesting point about figure names.

The Cambiata is one of two figures that use standardized names. The other figure is the Double Neighbor, which sometimes goes by the name “changing tone” (in English). Why do none of the other 22 melodic figures have names? Likely because they are so ubiquitous that nobody thinks they deserve special recognition.

The behavior that merits special recognition in the Cambiata (and also the Double Neighbor) has to do with the “hole” in the middle of each figure. Music theorists have never known how to explain how a figure that leaps to and from dissonant notes can sound so graceful. So they simply provide guidelines for how to handle it, never bothering to elaborate on the “broken rules.”

cambiata leaps between nonchord tones

We won’t go into the strict guidelines for using the Cambiata in classical styles here. More important is that the attractiveness of this figure comes from the way it goes “too far” (passing its destination) before returning to the intended goal. It’s a routine we’ve encountered in the L.H.P. and the Double Neighbor.

“There Goes My Life,” by Kenny Chesney  there-goes-my-life

there-goes-my-life melodic figures

“Cheek to Cheek,” by Irving Berlincheek-to-cheek melodic figures

“The Washington Post March,” by John Phillip Sousa

ALT melodic figures


the Zigzag

zigzag melodic figure model
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
your-smiling-face melodic figures

“Trumpet Concerto in Eb Major,” III by Franz Joseph Haydn
haydn-trumpet-concerto-eb melodic figures
“Die, Die, Die,” by the Avett Brothers
die-die-die melodic figures

The table’s subtitle calls melodic figures “the building blocks of melody.” By this, I mean we can think of the figure patterns as the raw materials of melody, in the same way that we can think of triads and seventh chords in root position as the raw materials of harmony.

This means that melodic figures are not yet melody. They lack any musical context, especially any sense of motion and integration. So one way to create a melody is to begin with a melodic figure, give it some rhythm, and combine it with other melodic figures. If I’m right that we’ve all internalized the basic patterns of melody through exposure over time, this is indeed how we already compose. Whether we realize it or not. Whether we mean to or not.

Let’s review. As we do, I’d like to show how each application connects to the 24 universal melodic figure patterns. Click the link to open its popup.

[1] Gesture.   The generic term “melodic figure” can refer to the smaller parts or “GESTURES” within a whole melody.

[2] Motive.   The generic term “melodic figure” can refer to a “MOTIVE,” a germ that a composer reworks to create the different types of music (introductions, main melodies, transitions, and etc.) required to make a whole composition.

[3] Lick.   The generic term “melodic figure” can refer to a stock pattern—or “LICK”—used when improvising.

[4] Figuration.   The generic term “melodic figure” can refer to using a melodic pattern to ELABORATE AN UNDERLYING FRAMEWORK.

[5] “Melodic figure.”   Because there are descriptive names for the various roles that short groups of notes can play within a melody, it makes good sense to reserve the term “melodic figure” to identify those distinct yet ubiquitous melodic patterns, common to dozens, even thousands of melodies. In other words, melodic figures are the building blocks for melody; the basic “stuff” from which melody is made.

A final note.

I’ve spent much of my professional life exploring how melody draws from a common pool of melodic figures. I’m far from finished. One frustration has been that other musicians look at what I’ve done with melodic figures and quickly dismiss it, saying, “You’re just talking about motives, right?” No.

In part, I wrote this blog post to make the difference between motives and figures (and licks, gestures, and figuration) more apparent.

I welcome discussion! Please post comments or questions here or contact me through my website.

Thanks for reading!

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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Picture of 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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