Are Chords the Same as Melody? What’s the Difference?
Music theory can be daunting for a beginner songwriter and it doesn’t have to be. For those of us who just want to write some pop songs, the terminology can sound a lot more complicated than it really is. To build on my previous articles that discuss melody vs chords, I want to explain in some modest detail what the differences are between a chord and a melody.
Are Chords the Same as Melody?
There’s a jumble of musical jargon in the world but, for the average pop musician, there are just 3 bare minimum elements you need to understand for music composition: melody, harmony, and rhythm (both percussion and flow). We’ll talk about rhythm on another day. Today let’s focus on the first two. Melody and harmony both refer to the notes that make up the entire song, but in different contexts. Usually pop musicians talk about chords rather than harmony, but in essence they are the same thing. What trips people up the most is understanding what makes a chord (a.k.a the harmony) different from a melody, and what role each one plays in a song.
Are Chords the Same as Melody? No, chord and melody are not the same. A chord is a group of notes played at the same time while a melody is a series of single notes played over time. Think about it visually: a chord is a bunch of notes stacked vertically, while a melody is a bunch of notes strung out horizontally one after another. The chord may be composed of many individual notes, but they aren’t meant to stand out on their own. That’s the job of the melody.
What is the Difference Between a Chord and a Melody?
While chord and melody are both just an assortment of notes at their core, they provide different functions for a song. These functions can be broken down with some terms borrowed from visual arts.
The two main differences between a chord and a melody is their texture and their depth of field.
- Texture, in a musical sense, is a word to describe how many musical elements are playing at once. The more notes are being played at the same time, the thicker that song’s texture is. A melody, all by itself, has a monophonic texture—that means it’s only one note played at a given time. A chord has a polyphonic texture—meaning many notes are playing in tandem. When you play a melody with chords alongside it, the combo of them together is specifically called a homophonic texture.
- Depth of Field, in a musical sense, refers to the spatial distance between musical elements, i.e. how “up front” or “far away” a sound is to the listener’s ears. For your usual pop song, the melody will be in the foreground; it will sound front and center and in focus. The chords will be in the background; they’ll sound quieter, spread out more across the stereo field, and less discernible to the ear.
Does a Song Need Chords?
A song does not need chords to still be a song, but it does need a melody. A melody can stand alone, without any accompaniment, and still be recognizable as it’s own musical work. On the other hand, chords are usually dependent on a melody to be a full composition. If you just play an A-minor chord on it’s own, nobody is going to recognize it as a song. The chords are meant to assist the melody, not stand on their own two feet.
A perfect example of this is the song “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega:
If you were alive in the 1980s or 1990s, there’s a good chance you’ll hear that intro melody and instantly know what it is. The original single version of that song is a cappella; it is only a melody: no chords, no drums, just single notes sung with a rhythm.
So again, does a song need chords? I’ll re-frame the question Socratically. The last time you had a song stuck in your head while taking a shower: did you start singing the chord roots, or the melody?
Chords are meant to provide context for a melody and add harmonic interest. But that does not mean you need to play full chords in every song in every section. Sometimes, the accompaniment of a song only gives a hint of the implied chords—for example, if the track contains only vocals, bass, and drums. In that situation, the bass may inform what full chords could play with the song by only providing the root notes. There is no set rule on how much harmonic content you have to provide in your music: you can include vast and lush orchestral arrangements to fill out the track for a Wall of Sound approach or strip the song down to only the most essential or minimal components.
Other Articles to Consider
Thanks for stopping by! If you found this helpful, here are a few more articles to check out: