Whenever a melodic line changes direction, we tend to hear the point (note) at which the direction change takes place
as being more prominent than the notes around it.
A Melodic Contour Graph shows only those more-prominent notes. Here is how to create one:
Write the first pitch of your melody as a stemless note on manuscript paper;
Continue by writing a stemless note for every change of direction in the line, and include the final note.
For example, if your melody is as follows:
… then your Melodic Contour Graph would be as follows:
Try this on the melodies you write in your 16th-century counterpoint assignments.
What does this tell you?
The value of a melodic contour graph is that it can give you a better sense of the quality of your melody.
For example, if the graph indicates that your contour keeps 'bumping' up against a particular note, you probably need to improve that section
of your melody so that this does not occur. Students who generally have no problem writing just one high note per exercise sometimes
write 4 or more melodic contour changes that involve the second-highest (or some other) note. This is not good practice because undue attention is drawn to that note, resulting in its perception as a kind
of 'stuck' note.
Similarly, if the melodic contour only spans a small interval such as a 3rd or 4th for a long-ish span of notes (8 or more), this tells you that
you probably have an aimless, meandering melody that needs to fixed (given a stronger, goal-oriented sense of direction).
If you want to get fancy, try incorporating the element of time in your X-axis, like this:
This gives you a sense of the rate at which changes in contour occur; this too can be useful information.
It is extremely valuable to make graphs of 16th-century repertoire (by Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria, etc.) to get a sense of the kinds of contours that were typical of that style.
When doing this, each phrase should have its own melodic contour graph,
so you need to write the first and last notes of each phrase even if they don't represent contour changes.
Write a slur over each group of contour notes that represent a phrase, and sing or play your contour,
pausing briefly at the end of each phrase.
A Melodic Contour Graph provides useful information about any type of music, including your own compositions.