The Melodic Figure

The smallest unit in musical composition is the

single tone. The smallest cluster of successive tones (from two to

four or five in number) that will convey a definite musical impression,

as miniature musical idea, is called a Figure. Assuming the single

tone to represent the same unit of expression as a letter of the

alphabet, the melodic figure would be defined as the equivalent of a

complete (small) word;--pursuing
the comparison further, a series of

figures constitutes the melodic Motive, equivalent to the smallest

group of words (a subject with its article and adjective, for example);

and two or three motives make a Phrase, equivalent to the complete,

though comparatively brief, sentence (subject, predicate, and object).

This definition, amply illustrated in the following examples, serves

also to point out the significant resemblance between the structure of

language and of music. The principal melody is, as it were, the voice

of the speaker, whose message is framed wholly out of the primary

tones, or letters of the musical alphabet. The association of primary

tone-units, in successive order, results first in the figure, then in

the motive, then the phrase, period, and so forth, in the manner of

natural growth, till the narrative is ended. The following example,

though extending beyond our present point of observation, is given as

an illustration of this accumulative process (up to the so-called


The tones bracketed a are the Figures; two (in the last measures,

three) of these are seen to form Motives; two of these motives make the

Phrase; and the whole sentence, of two phrases, is a Period. See also

Ex. 1 and Ex. 2, in which the formation of figures is very distinct.

The pregnancy and significance of each of these tiny musical words

(or figures, as we are to call them),--small and apparently imperfect

as they are,--can best be tested by concentrating the attention upon

each as if it stood alone upon the page; it is such vitality of the

separate particles that invests a musical masterwork with its power and

permanency of interest.

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