Structure of the Melody-classification System*


Bartók divided the more than thirteen and a half thousand melodies of the Complete Collection of Hungarian Folk Songs – that is, the Hungarian folk songs with stanza structure collected until 1938 – into three categories based on the following principles:

Class A: isometric four-liners (melodies with lines consisting of the same number of syllables), the structure of which is not architectonic (basically the “old style” Hungarian folk songs, often pentatonic with descending melodic contour).

Class B: four-liners with architectonic (arched) structure, the melodies of the so-called new style (characteristic of these is a certain correspondence of the opening and closing lines: the closing line rhymes, at least as far as their range is concerned, with the opening line but they often have the same motive as well; and the range of at least one of the middle lines is higher).

Class C: melodies with heterometric strophes and non-architectonic structure, as well as those with more or less than four lines (basically this class contains melodies which according to Bartók are of foreign origin, or show foreign influence).


On the second level of classification the melodies form subclasses according to whether they have an adjustable or a non-adjustable rhythm. Bartók regarded the phenomenon of rhythm-adjustability — the “dotted rhythm” adjusting to long and short syllables — more or less as a Hungarian speciality, but of a relatively recent origin. Accordingly:

Class A: melodies of non-adjustable rhythm first (as the more “ancient” ones, the first ones in the evolution chain); and melodies of adjustable rhythm second.

Class B: in the new-style melody material there are practically no melodies of non-adjustable rhythm; this material is generally characterized by rhythm-adjustability.

Class C: melodies with adjustable rhythm first (as the most Hungarian of the material showing foreign influences).Closing Class C, as a kind of Appendix to the whole system, there are two additional subclasses dealing with melodies of less than four lines (non-four liners), which are quite rare in Hungarian folk music.

[– “Class F” (Appendix): there are about 800 sheets, which seem not to be classified, because they did not get system numbers from Bartók. These melodies are signed by the editors with the letter F in our database.]

A IIsometric four-liners, non-architectonic structure with non-adjustable rhythm
A IIIsometric four-liners, non-architectonic structure, with adjustable rhythm
BNew-style melodies
C IHeterometric, non-architectonic melodies with adjustable rhythm, consisting of four (or more) lines
C IIHeterometric, non-architectonic melodies, with non-adjustable rhythm, consisting of four (or more) lines
C IIIThree-liners
C IVTwo-liners


In the further division of the material of the subclasses – except Subclasses C I and C II – a characteristic feature is the number of syllables per line; the groups follow one another based on the principle of the increasing number of syllables. In those sections which contain both iso- and heterometric melodies (B, C III, C IV), the sequence will be determined by the number of syllables of the first line, then the second, the third and so on (e.g., 6, 6, 6, 6 comes before 6, 6, 7, 6; or 7, 11, 7, 11 comes before 8, 5, 8, 5. etc.).

In Subclasses C I and C II there is a special type of classification overriding the grouping based on the syllable-principle, and which takes into account the relationship, the proportion, between shorter and longer lines. Bartók indicated the structure of these heterometric stanza-types with the symbols “zZ”. He used a small “z” for the shorter and a capital “Z” for the longer line, “z + z” or “Z + Z” signs meant double (divided) lines (accordingly, z, z, Z, z is a stanza which consists of lines for instance, of 5, 5, 8, 5 syllables; Z, Z, z + z, Z on the other hand, represents a stanza, the individual lines of which consist, for instance, of 8, 8, 6 + 6, 8 syllables). The stanza types in which there were more than two kinds of syllable numbers, Bartók marked with the letters a – b – c – d instead of ”zZ”. An exception is, however, the group marked “Z, Z, z+z, zL or ‘Z, Z, z+z, zL. Here the number of syllables do not necessarily correspond in the last line with any of the previous lines. “ zL” usually means a somewhat shorter line than “z” (e.g., 10, 10, 7+7,6) and “zL” means a somewhat longer line than “Z” (e.g., 7, 7, 6+6, 9).)

Bartók decided upon the sequence of the stanza types partly on the basis of certain mechanical rules (progressively moving from simpler stanzas consisting of fewer elements to the more complex ones, or putting two opposites next to one another, etc.) and partly on the basis of other considerations taking into account the characteristics of the material (for instance, the frequency of some of the types) as follows:

1. z z Z z
2. Z Z z Z
3. Z Z z z
4. z z Z Z
5. Z z Z z
6. z Z z Z
6bis Z z z Z
7. Z z z z
8. z Z Z Z
9. z z z Z
10. Z Z Z z
11. Z Z Z+Z Z
12. Z+Z
13. z z Z+Z z
14. Z Z z+z Z
15. Z Z z+z z L
16. Z Z z+z z L
17. a a b c
18. a
19. a+a a+a b c
20. a b c c
21. a b a c
21bis a b b c
22. a b c b
23. a b c d
24. különféle, fentebb nem szereplő strófák, kettőzött sorokkal

(There is no sample among the material of subsection C I for the types 7, 10, 18, 20, and the second types of 6 and 2l; and in subclass C II there is none for the strophe-type No. 19.)


In the case of an identical structure and syllable-number further classification is done with the help of rhythmic characteristics according to a detailed table of rhythmic patterns (see below).

This tabulation in Class A (in the Subclasses A I and A II) puts the parlando melodies in the first place in each syllable group (if there are any in the given group) then, for the melodies with tempo giusto rhythm puts first the isorhythmic ones (in which the rhythm of each line is identical) and finally the heterorhythmic melodies.

In Class B parlando as an independent group does not occur, but to the group of iso- and heterorhythmic melodies, the group of heterometric ones is added.

C I and C II are simpler on this level of classification, because here we deal only with heterometric strophes.

C III and C IV are more complicated since in these subclasses there are parlando, iso- and heterorhythmic, as well as heterometric melodies.

In the classification of the heterorhythmic melodies of A I, A II and C I first the position of the lines of different rhythms and their proportion, their interrelationship within the stanza are considered according to the following system (the identical letters refer to lines with identical rhythmic schemes):

“Slovak narrowed rhythm”

In Class B and in Subclass C IV this level of classification is left out; in the case of the subclasses of the heterorhythmic tunes, melodies are classified directly according to their rhythmic pattern.

As regards the logic of the sequence of the rhythmic patterns, the clearly recognizable principle of the classification is the progress from the simple towards the more complex, or, as Bartók puts it in the Foreword to the Serbo-Croatian Folk Songs (p. 30), the “more natural or frequent metrical structures will precede the complicated ones”.


The order of melodies with identical rhythmic pattern is decided on the basis of cadences; first of all the principal cadence (the cadence of the second line), followed by the cadence of the first and, finally, of the third line. The direction of progression here is that of ascent: that is, after 1 (1) 1 1 comes 1 (1) 2 1; 5 (1) 1 1 comes before 1 (5) 1 1, and so on. If two melodies (melody-types) are identical even as concerns cadence, the sequence will be decided by the range: the melody which has a lower note or a narrower range, will come first.


Finally, the lowest level of the system is that of the group of variants. From the strictly logical point of view, the organization of melodies (which have already been classified on several levels) into variant groups is indeed the final step.

However, Bartók had actually started his classification in just this way: first of all, he lined up the related melodies next to one another, and worked with the thus created groups of variants as with independent units.

In deciding what was a “variant”, Bartók occasionally regarded the identity of melodic design as more important than, for instance, the number of syllables or cadence. Therefore, this lowest level of classification may contradict the others to a certain extent: in a group of melodies with a low number of syllables, one with a higher number of syllables may appear as a variant form and so on.

Within the groups of variants the lettered (a – b – c, etc.) sequence of the songs does not reflect such consistent principles as the actual classification. It is conceivable that Bartók – had he supervised the preparation for publication – would have modified the final system at this point.


* Compiled and extended version of the chapter with the same title by Sándor Kovács, published in: Béla Bartók, Hungarian Folk Songs. Complete Collection, Vol. I. (edited by Sándor Kovács, Ferenc Sebő), Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest 1993, 66–71.