Melodic contour (the sequence of ups and downs in a melody, regardless of interval size) expresses those aspects of a melody that are most essential to manipulation of that melody in various musical structures, e.g., folktunes and fugues. This is demonstrated by brief analyses of actual music. Two experiments demonstrate the role of melodic contour recognition in memory for melodies. Experiment 1 (2×3 factorial design) involved short‐term memory with comparison melodies either transposed or not transposed from the key of the standard. Separate groups had the tasks of distinguishing (a) between same and different melodies; (b) between same melodies and ones with only the same contour; and (c) between melodies with the same contour and different ones. The effects of transposition and task and their interaction were significant (p<0.001). Untransposed melodies were recognized by their exact pitches, so that tasks (a) and (b) were equally easy. Contour recognition was more important with transposed melodies, so that task (b) was very difficult, and tasks (a) and (c) were easier. Task (c) was about equally difficult under both conditions. Experiment 2 involved recognition of distorted versions of familiar folktunes having the same length and rhythmic structure. In ascending order of recognizability, these distortions preserved merely the harmonic basis of the melody, the melodic contour, and the contour plus the relative sizes of successive intervals between notes (chi‐square = 50.4, p<0.001).

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