On the importance of melody

Myth and melody

The sound a rooster makes is the sound a basement door makes when it is earnestly trying to open, and the sound a car makes when it is vainly trying to stop, just before the crash. It is jackals at night. It is the soul abandoning all hope as it enters in, it is Goofy tobogganing recklessly down the Alps, it is Pentheus being rent limb from limb by the Bacchanals — it is all these and more, but since there is now a rooster living near us, I can tell you with precision that the one sound a rooster does not make is “Cock-a-doodle-doo.”

Dawn or no, there is just the rooster. (A feral rooster on the Hawaiian island of Kauai: photo by jaybergesen via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Another myth is that the rooster is the herald of the dawn. Oh, he announces 3am and calls our attention to 4am, and is pleased to let us know when it is 7:13am; he sends out alerts an hour before noon and 47 minutes after midnight and every blessèd time in between. He may even crow at dawn, truth be told, but as the cry is only one among a series of updates, dawn has long since been emptied of meaning: The message is not “Here is dawn,” but “Here is a rooster.”

We live under myths. I was taught in grade school that people feared Columbus would fall off the edge of the Earth. I was taught in college that music has three parts: rhythm, melody, harmony. But no people ever believed that the world was flat (least of all people with boats and oceans; “flat-earthers” were a fiction invented in the 19th century), and music has only one part.

That part is melody. It is melody first, melody last, and only melody.

Yeah, but . . .

Some say that rhythm, the segmenting of time into smaller bits of time, is a part. But we always experience time as bits of time. Bits of time are not music. Some say that harmony is a part, but harmony is just two tunes, or tunes layered, or tunes echoed. Rhythm is a tune tapping its foot, and harmony is a tune stroking its chin.

Then there’s what some call melody, which is what I call the tune:

This is the opening of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It is the top line, so is easily heard, and it is good and beautiful, so is easily recognized. Here it is, below, with another voice added (actually, the accompaniment boiled down to one voice):

The top line by itself is recognizable as the Barber, and the bottom line by itself probably isn’t, but it doesn’t change the fact that we experience and remember all of this — and more — as the Adagio.

Attention to detail

Tune, rhythm, and harmony are indeed parts of music, but they are not the parts. They also have subparts. The top line has its own rhythm; we could divide those black notes into groups of four, two, three, or a mix. The bottom line is an exquisite voyage of durations, just as much in rhythmic counterpoint with the top as it is in harmony (waiting for that third arrow to land is one of Barber’s genius moments). The best music has this attention to detail in bottom and middle lines just as much as in the tune.

But there are even more parts than tune, rhythm, harmony. There are high and low, loud and soft, and instrument choice, for example. Meter itself (the 4/2 at the beginning of the examples) is more than an instruction — it’s a silent beat that’s as much a part of the music as what we hear. Then there’s the psychic counterpoint of what we hear against what we remember having heard, against what we are expecting to hear. There are phrases, breaths, movements, time-outs.

All of these together, and more, are the Adagio, and all together they are more than parts. They become one overarching melody that drives the tune, the rhythm, the harmony, and everything else.

The ultimate source

The fact is, the deeper we hear, the more parts we find. The parts either drive the music forward (which is what good music does) or stop it (which is what bad music does). Whether it’s Barber or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or Milton Babbitt, all the innumerable parts — including main tune (wherever it is), rhythms (micro- and macro-), sublimated or attenuated tunes (harmonies), textures, memories, colors, expectations — all flow from the grand melody.

All the parts are one melody. Composers construct them together as one melody and guide our attention by one melody. Our ears hear from top to bottom to arrow to middle to back again. That path is the melody beckoning and beguiling us and carrying all the parts as one. Music is the art of sound moving through time. Melody is what drives it.

River and flow

If it seems that I’m equating music with melody, I suppose you could say that, with only the difference that music is the thing and melody is the drive. There is no edge between melody and another part; melody is the only part. There is the river, and there is the flow. There is the ocean, in fact, and composers always knew that while they could bump into land and stop, they would never fall off the edge of the world, because there is no edge. “Here is a rooster,” says the rooster, and the rooster keeps no time, as I have found. Dawn or no, there is just the rooster.

Our readers respond

Phil Korb

of Philadelphia, PA on October 29, 2015

This is why I never miss an article by Mr. Smith. Just wonderful, and so dramatically put. Mr. Smith is an invaluable teacher. As a Bach devotee, I am compelled to introduce initiates, and one trick I use to help them appreciate his counterpoint— whether a keyboard fugue or an orchestral or choral wor— is to have them pick out one line or one instrument and follow it, and then another one. They will discover one lovely melody after another. Singing Bach's choral music, as I do, is a treat for every part. Just try to count all the great melodies that man wrote!

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