Friday, November 18, 2011


I'm always talking about harmony, but never melody, which is probably what is foremost in most people's minds when they think about or recall music. Melody is a particularly difficult thing to talk about though, because it seems hard to generalize about it. What makes great melodies great? They are memorable and expressive. OK, what makes melodies memorable and expressive? Uh. Hmm.

Take "Yesterday" for example. Possibly the most famous tune of all time and Paul just fell out of bed with it running in his head one morning.

We can talk about it all we want: how it begins with an expressive 2-1 appoggiatura, how the phrase length is irregular, how the harmony falls from I to a minor, not diminished, VII for a Lydian modal effect, how the final cadence is plagal, how the relative minor is tonicized in the second bar and so on. But trust me, a hundred other composers could do the same things (and have) and come up with tunes that are banal, inexpressive and unmemorable. This is where theory fails.

I once got into an argument with a theory professor who was trying to claim some sort of scientific validity for theory. If we study and analyze enough sonatas, then we can come up with a general or typical structure for sonatas and test that model by using it to create new sonatas. If they sound like the old ones, we have a good theory of sonata form. Sounds good in theory... But the truth is that all the really good sonatas are each unique and that is perhaps the crucial element in a great sonata: that it is unique. Take this one for example:

There is no other piano sonata that sounds like that even though Beethoven used a variation on a very old harmonic progression and probably stole the texture from a Mozart opera.

Just so you don't feel completely cheated with this post, where so far I have simply said I have no idea, let me say two things about melody. From the beginnings of notated music in the West, melodies tended to move by step with leaps being far less common. As tonal harmony developed in the 17th and 18th centuries this started to change and by the Classical Period, melodies were typically constructed using the notes of a chord or triad, that is to say, instead of moving by step, they moved by thirds. For example:

 As opposed to the stepwise movement of this:

Now here's an interesting thing: the melody of "Yesterday" moves almost exclusively by step, one scale note to the next. Hmm...


Anonymous said...

By picking these examples (not the Palestrina piece), you must surely be aware that some people will find them examples of banal if not fairly excruciating music. The Mozart piece is a good example of why some (of us) can take Mozart only selectively. The moonlight sonata isn't quite as bad as it sounds, but still... Yesterday meanwhile is catchy and popular, but it's a pretty ridiculous tune nonetheless: schmaltzy quartet meets cheesy lyrics meets sappy melody. A long cringe-inducing whine.

As someone who's proud to love some music that is objectively bad (hey, I'll take Trick Daddy any day over Paul McCartney), I don't begrudge anyone's love of *any* music, however trashy it can be. Love can be blind, especially in music. But I think one could make an objective case that all 3 of these famous tunes are solidly second-rate.

Bryan Townsend said...

One of the reasons I started this blog was to practice music criticism and the issues that come out of it. So far no-one has challenged much of my criticism. I wrote a post called "What's Wrong With Jazz" and expected a whole lot of push-back, but it didn't happen. That was early on, so not many people were reading it then, I guess. But this is a provoking comment, which is great!

The examples I picked, with the exception of the Palestrina, are all famous melodies, so they served the purpose of the post quite well. But yes, I'm quite sure that some people find them banal and perhaps even excruciating and others, most others, find them fine pieces of music. Remember, these are VERY famous melodies.

Now, what would be interesting from a critical point of view would be to give reasons why you find the Mozart, for example, banal or excruciating. Is it the fact that the two opening phrases outline, respectively the tonic and dominant harmonies? That was why I included it. What is wrong with melodies that outline harmonies? That is an integral feature of Classical style, after all.

Ok, now on to "Yesterday". You say, "schmaltzy quartet meets cheesy lyrics meets sappy melody." You do know that the quartet was George Martin's idea and Paul was initially opposed to it because he didn't want schmaltz? And he continued to insist that the string players use no vibrato. As to cheesy lyrics, I think if you compare them to other song lyrics of the time you will find that they are perhaps more reflective than most. It wasn't until they started listening to Bob Dylan that the Beatles really attacked lyrics as an artistic challenge.

"Sappy melody"? But why do you think it is a sappy melody? And what sort of melody would you rate more highly? You mention Trick Daddy. Are you seriously saying that he comes up with better melodies than Paul McCartney?

If you liked the Palestrina piece, could you sketch out why exactly?

And thanks again for the comment!

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Personally, I don't really care much for the Beatles, but after years of playing covers of them I've at least come to appreciate the craft (and the "10,000 hours" they spent as a band to hone their sound).

Most of the of the world's music moves in a stepwise motion, and I would side with the theorist, though a formula for individual composer styles would be necessary for any complete analysis. And possibly one for the meta-style in which the composer is writing (e.g. Western Classical, Ottoman Classical, Persian Classical). Doable in principle, but probably an intractable problem.

An interesting aside, or rather, I guess it is related to Melody. In some Turkish circles the makam chargah (pitches equivalent to our C Major scale--and in transpositions is structurally equivalent to the Western Major scale in all of it's transpositions) is considered too banal to work use in composition. Some call it a childish makam, some say it's unsophisticated and simple.

When you have several hundred scales to work with I suppose you can be picky but it's a sobering thought when I think about how prominent a scale structure this is in so much of Western music and how sparse, simple [and in some ways] undeveloped the structural foundations (i.e. scales) of our melodies are. Sure, we occasionally use some Greek or medieval modes, but that's still just 12 structural pitches (at least since equal-temperament). In some ways, having a complex harmony has eliminated the need for having complex melody (and possibly complex rhythm).

Oh, and why the aside--those Turks who chastise chargah are the same ones who will claim it doesn't have much expressive (hence "childlike?") capabilities in comparison to the other hundred or so makams in regular usage.

Bryan Townsend said...

Until Terry Riley came along with In C, probably most Western composers would have said that the C major scale was unsophisticated and simple too!

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Hahaha--true enough! I think, however, that one wider implication is that the major scale, in general, might be (by some Turkish musicians and composers) considered unsophisticated and simple!

Not that I necessarily agree with that. I think there are perfectly sophisticated, elegant and profound works written even in C Major. But I think that's also because of the conjunction of the scale with chordal harmonies that create the sophistication.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, exactly! It's not the scale you use, it's what you do with it. I offer in evidence Bach's C major prelude and fugue from the WTC Bk 1

Rickard Dahl said...

On the topic of non-Western classical music: It's nice to go explore the non-Western classical music but there are a few things that bother me. Sure, there are complex melodies but sadly most of those musical traditions didn't develop a good notational system or did develop it quite late. Thus a huge loss in both repertoire and possibilities of developing the tradition further. The second point connected to that is lack of counterpoint and harmony. Yes there are drones but drones are very limiting (and boring) in my view. I'm sure that it's possible to achieve very interesting counterpoint and harmony even if the system allows for more than 12 tones per octave and get rid of the drones. Yet this hasn't really happened (as far as I know). Either way I hope things improve in that regard.

Rickard Dahl said...

Anwyays, on the topic of melody: Unlike harmony and counterpoint (how melodies or lines interact), it seems like rhythm and melody itself can't be theorized so easily. In a sense it's a good thing I think. Melody comes in many different shapes and forms but each melody even if it may share the same types of characteristics (shape of the melody, commonly used combinations of intervals etc.) is one of the main things defining a piece of music. Ofc elements such as harmony or orchestration are also important but maybe the melodic element is most important.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for your comments on this old, old post! I agree with you entirely about non-Western music. Though it can be amazingly evocative and create atmospheric effects that Western music doesn't, it really doesn't rise to the heights that the greatest Western music does. Just a personal opinion, of course. I love gamelan music and mbira music and music of the pi'pa and biwa. But my feeling is that this music, while creating remarkable sounds and expression, never quite comes to terms with the structural possibilities of music. When it comes to harmony and counterpoint, Western music really reigns supreme.

You say, "Unlike harmony and counterpoint (how melodies or lines interact), it seems like rhythm and melody itself can't be theorized so easily." This is a very interesting comment! Yes, texts such as that on composition by Schoenberg, have a lot to say about motif and phrase and how to use them as building blocks. But the more extended melodic shapes, such as the bel canto of Bellini, does not inspire a lot of investigation! It is pretty hard to theorize melody, as you say...