Classical Music is the kind we keep thinking will turn into a tune
First Person Singular
Melodies take us back to our first experiences of music, or at least our first conscious ones. If rhythm belongs to the formation of our body, melody belongs to the formation of our minds.
Our parents crooned them to us as babies. And as toddlers, we sung them back in the form of nursery rhymes and children’s ditties. For most of us, these form a fundamental part of our experience of being a child. To the discovery of our own voice.
A melody by definition represents a single voice. The word itself comes from the ancient Greek, Melos, which describes the singing or chanting of poetry. A single string of notes: a melody. More notes sung simultaneously: Harmony, or disharmony, depending on which notes you pick…
But you yourself can only sing with one voice. Your own.
That singular aspect of melody tells us something about our very personal relationship to melody.
Melodies beguile or haunt us. They make us feel happy or sad. They make us relate to music, connect with it personally. They make us remember.
They make us feel.
Melodies connect with us emotionally.
That’s why we (like the ancient Greeks) so often enjoy melodies paired with lyrics, in the form of songs. The lyric cements that emotive bond between us and the music. Whether it’s White Christmas or Yesterday, a particular sequence of pitch and spacing of notes carries us immediately into an emotional space, and answers some deeper need within us.
“Never knew the Melody…” as Tom Waits sings it, “...until I needed the song.”
Melody is central to our experience of almost all music. It means a great deal to us, and yet, like comedy or sex, loses a little something in the explaining.
But let’s give it a go…
Melody adds pitch value to our musical toolkit. Rhythm dictates how long or short a note is, in duration. But with melody the notes can now go up and down – high and low – as well.
This is not a distinct quality from rhythm. It’s an addition to it.
It’s still vital how short or long each note is, in duration. But now we also have pitch. Our beats have become notes, we’ve added a new second dimension to our musical universe, and our music is sounding richer and fuller.
I’ve always thought “Unchained Melody” is a curious name for a song. A Melody is actually something rather like a chain: A sequence of notes that link together to produce a unified musical phrase that sounds pleasant to our ears. Each note in a melody is linked together, and together they form a chain.
That chain of notes goes by lots of names: Voice, Phrase, Line, Air, Strain. Or even good old Tune.
Melody can be hard to pick out amongst the busy mishmash of classical music (more on that later). But here, a wonderful melody from Prokofiev’s 7th symphony, the melody should stand out nice and clear.
It starts low (0.00-0.24) before it is repeated again in the violins (0.38-1.04).
A Melody is a collection of notes, but it isn’t just any a collection of notes. Each note has a relationship to the one that proceeds, and the one that follows. And those relationships are linked together, appropriately, to get melody.
A great melody always manages to fulfill the dual aim of fulfilling and defying expectations.
If you have a string of notes climbing upwards in small steps, you create an automatic gravitational tug to the music, and an expectation that the next note will rise. Which means when you counter that expectation, perhaps by going down, or by taking a larger leap upwards, that can also produce a pleasurable feeling for the listener.
Listen to the melody again, and listen carefully to when each note rises, and when it falls. When it takes a bigger leap up, and when it holds a note. Each of these decisions, connects the series of notes together, and creates melody.
Try singing along to this Prokofiev melody, it’s harder than it seems. That’s because the moves up and down are not always predictable (and neither are the duration of the notes or even the leap in some of the pitch values).
Getting that balance between the expected and the unexpected, the familiar and the surprising, is usually the key to producing great melody.
Can’t Get You out of My Head
Our Mozart piece
Melodies stand out immediately when we listen to music. They’re the first thing our ears lock onto, consciously at least. It’s also the bit we’re most likely to remember afterward.
We share a very personal relationship to melody. So deep is that relationship that sometimes we can’t get a tune out of our head. Even when we want to. Like that annoying advertising jingle or pop tune, that keeps replaying itself, unasked for, in your head. That tells us something instinctive is happening, as we often find when we think about music.
Melodies catch hold of our thought-processes, even hijacking them. They no doubt ape those thought processes themselves. Another indication of how close the relationship is between us and music. Rhythm’s got a grip on our body, whilst Melody takes hold of our mind. All of this at an instinctive or unconscious level.
Enough with the words, let’s do some listening. We don’t need to be able to define melody to appreciate it, but we do need to be able to hear it. So let’s turn to the first few seconds of our Mozart piece, and listen for the melody:
Mozart Opening 0.00-0.06
The melody is the part of the music that sings out to us, the main tune. It is played by the violins, and should stand out.
If you listen to the next few seconds, you can hear the same melody repeated, but now played by the most of the orchestra:
Mozart Opening 0.06-0.15
There’s actually several different things happening in this music at the same time here. But we still perceive a singular melodic line from the overall sound, and that tells us something of the way we almost always perceive music through the lens of melody.
The melody is the part of the music we would sing when we want to tell someone else what that music is. And that’s a good way to think of melody: as the voice of a piece of music.
Melody vs Tune
Our Bach piece
So far I’ve been talking about Melody essentially in terms of a ‘good tune’.
With classical music, melody means more than this. And that can create barriers for new listeners. We can sometimes hear a great tune come emerging from the music – like that Prokofiev’s fifth symphony clip at the top of this chapter. But as soon as we hear this great tune, it seems as if the the music is immediately off doing something else…
In other words, it can often be our expectation of what a melody should be that makes classical music sound confusing to a new listener.
A good tune is not the final aim of much classical music, though there is no doubt it produces lots of great ones. A tune is a short and memorable melody, but in musical terms a tune is finite and closed. The melody has been in a sense ‘completed’: it works as a tune. It can now be repeated and repeated, which is how an effective tune works.
Classical music tends towards melodies which can develop and transform. A melody may start out as a simple germ or idea, but can grow into an entire movement.
If you’re not used to this, it can make classical music rather frustrating to follow.
Hunting the Melody
There’s also an issue of density. With classical music, melodies are often harder to discern amongst everything else that’s going on. And then so often, just when you’ve picked out a melody, the music bounces off somewhere else, slipping out of your grasp like a slippery eel.
Sometimes a melody can be laid over itself, or over a different melody. Bach is a composer who will often have at least two things going on at the same time:
Where is the main melody?
In fact, there are a number of different melodies, overlapping and playing at the same time.
Take this section, from the Mozart piece:
This small section employs two simple but different melodies, but repeats them many times in different ways. The effect blossoms, like beautiful ripples, radiating outwards. The music sounds very melodic, but singing this section to somebody else is actually rather tricky.
This concentrated yet fluid presentation of melody can make classical music tricky to listen to, especially if you’re used to pop music, where melodies come at regular and predictable points (verse and chorus), and don’t deviate from one chorus to the next.
Classical music has more than its fair share of great tunes. But expect variation, multi-layering, and plenty of melodic development!
Ode to Joy
To put this all in a more practical context, let’s take a (hopefully) familiar example. It’s the choral finale to Beethoven’s 9th symphony, popularly known as the Ode to Joy, and it is our third piece on this course. Here’s the main melody:
Ode to Joy Theme
Here now is a compilations of clips I’ve edited together, all from this same movement. The clips show how many different ways this theme can be treated:
Ode to Joy Montage
- 00.00 Here’s our ‘tune’, being sung by the whole choir.
- 00.15 Here it is sung by a solo artist
- 00.28 Now sung by more than one soloist. And it’s not exactly the same melody anymore, it’s changed.
- 00.40 Now sung by 4 people. The melody’s been adapted to the point where the original is harder to discern.
- 00.52 Now sung at the same time as another melody. Much harder to discern.
- 01.10 A transformation of our melody, now sounding like a marching band on parade.
- 01.26 An appropriately final-sounding reincarnation, for the music’s conclusion.
Melody is usually the first things our ears latch onto, and that’s as true for classical music as any other. But when listening to classical music, it’s going to be useful to have a flexible sense of what a melody can be, and where it can lead us.
That’s pretty much it for now, but before I go I just want to leave you with a story.
The tales goes that back in the day (1964) Paul McCartney woke up one morning having dreamt of a melody. He got straight out of bed, and played the tune out on the piano, adding the lyrics “scrambled eggs”.
McCartney was absolutely convinced the melody had already been written by somebody else, and for the next few weeks he went round singing the song to see if anyone knew it.
“Eventually it became like handing something in to the police” he later said. “I thought if no one claimed it after a few weeks then I could have it.”
I’ve been describing Melodies as being an intensely personal thing. But melodists often talk about their work as being an instinctive, almost automatic process. Here are a few famous melodists with their own views on melody:
I compose as a sow piddles (Mozart)
Sometimes I am so full of music, and so overflowing with melody, that I find it simply impossible to write down anything (Robert Schuman)
Whenever I get an idea for a song, even before jotting down the notes, I can hear it in the orchestra, I can smell it in the scenery, I can see the kind of actor who will sing it, and I am aware of an audience listening to it (Richard Rodgers)
I often think of random melodies. And I pretty much hear in my head what I want to do with the orchestra as I’m writing on the piano (Andrew Lloyd Webber)
I’ve always been able to just concoct a melody quite easily – it’s just kind of instinct, really. (Florence Welch)
Paul McCartney describes his melody for yesterday as something he found, rather than something he created. And that tells us something really important about how melodies exist outside of ourselves. They have to have that universal aspect to them, that makes them so personally affecting to each of us.
That’s about it, just time for a quiz to test out those ears:
We’re going to take a longer look at one of the Beethoven clips from earlier, and try to follow the Ode to Joy theme as it jumps about the choir and orchestra. Can you hear it moving? When does it begin each time?
Bonus points if you can name the instruments playing our theme. Headphones very necessary, so go get some if you haven’t been using them so far!
If you need a clue, the first changes come at 0.09 and then 0.18…
Next chapter: if Rhythm defines the first dimension of musical space, and Melody the second, then we’re going to explore the third and final dimension:
- Lovely Bonnie lies over the sea from Kara Marlene
- McCartney sings scrambled eggs with Jimmy Fallon on Fallon’s show
- Beethoven’s ninth is a huge treasure trove of musical delights that will take awhile during this course to unpack. So no harm starting off with a listen to the entire finale, conducted by Lenard Bernstein. You can follow the famous theme developing out of the orchestra during the opening minutes.
- And a seven year old Sheila Smith singing Dear Father Build me a boat can be found here