Parsons code
A simple notation used to identify a piece of music through melodic motion

The Parsons code, formally named the Parsons code for melodic contours, is a simple notation used to identify a piece of music through melodic motion — movements of the pitch up and down. Denys Parsons (father of Alan Parsons) developed this system for his 1975 book The Directory of Tunes and Musical Themes. Representing a melody in this manner makes it easier to index or search for pieces, particularly when the notes' values are unknown. Parsons covered around 15,000 classical, popular and folk pieces in his dictionary. In the process he found out that *UU is the most popular opening contour, used in 23% of all the themes, something that applies to all the genres.

Parsons Code of Ode to Joy

    Parsons$ ./contour *RUURDDDDRUURDR
            *-*                    
           /   \                  
          *     *                  
         /       \                
      *-*         *         *-*    
                   \       /   \  
                    *     *     *-*
                     \   /        
                      *-*

The first note of a melody is denoted with an asterisk (*), although some Parsons code users omit the first note. All succeeding notes are denoted with one of three letters to indicate the relationship of its pitch to the previous note:

    • = first tone as reference,
  • u = "up", for when the note is higher than the previous note,
  • d = "down", for when the note is lower than the previous note,
  • r = "repeat", for when the note has the same pitch as the previous note.

Search a melody by it's Parsons code at Musipedia

Some examples

  • Ode to Joy: *RUURDDDDRUURDR
  • "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star": *rururddrdrdrdurdrdrdurdrdrddrururddrdrdrd
  • "Silent Night": *udduuddurdurdurudddudduruddduddurudduuddduddd
  • "Aura Lea" ("Love Me Tender"): *uduududdduu
  • "White Christmas": *udduuuu
  • First verse in Madonna's "Like a Virgin": *rrurddrdrrurdudurrrrddrduuddrdu

There are studies showing that despite it's simplicity, Parsons code is still too hard for non-musicians to formulate and interpret the code for melody search. Yet it may be useful for more skilled musicians, but the audio-based search becomes more widely spread and adopted.