The Elements of Music: 4 of 7, Contour

As the elements go so far, Contour has easily been the most difficult for me to get my head around.  The basic notion is not too difficult – does the music’s pitch rise or fall as the piece progresses?  Consider Twinkle Twinkle:

Twinkle Star
How I
What you
Twinkle Are


The melody begins on the tonal note, then rises rapidly, then falls over time back to the tonal note.

Contour in this way seems pretty simple, perhaps.  But consider that most songs we hear include quite a bit more music than simply the basic melody line.  Supporting chords can rise as the melody falls.  There can be multiple competing melodies.  Music can be atonal, which makes it difficult to find a point of reference when considering rising and falling (from where to where?).

So what is the point?

Well, hyper-analyzing music is perhaps rewarding in and of itself, but in my investigation into pitch contours, I ran across an article by Salamon and Gomez of Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona entitled, “Melody Extraction from Polyphonic Music Signals.” The article explores mechanical means by which to identify pitch contours, and details some algorithms used to identify salient features of music.  Fundamentally, they are attempting to analyze music with computers, for use in applications like voice recognition software.   In analyzing polyphonic music, the researchers want to be able to identify the main melody line within.  Salamon and Gomez “define a set of contour characteristics and show that by studying their distributions, [they] can devise rules to distinguish between melodic and non-melodic contours. This leads to the development of new voicing detection, octave error minimisation and melody selection techniques.”

Another practical application of pitch contours has to do with composing music and manipulating the contours.  The overlapping pitch contours of melody and harmony lines can be manipulated mathematically to compose music.  Some composers work mathematically, and by manipulating pitch contours with various transformative functions they are able to produce innovative sounds.

It should be obvious that pitch contour is a relatively large area of study, with quite a bit of specialized knowledge required to do much more than scratch the surface.  But since I’m just interested in scratching the surface of these elements of music for now, I think it’s time to move on!

Thanks for reading.


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