Tune, melody and note-row

September 15, 2015

A book that has become something of a Bible for me is the small volume Tune, by Imogen Holst (1962). She was the daughter of Gustav Holst, composer of The Planets among other excellent orchestral works, and clearly she knew pretty much all there is to know about music.

She begins the book by distinguishing between melody and tune. She quotes Robert Schumann: ‘A child sings his [tunes] to himself; melody, however, is developed later in life.’ She goes on to explain that not every musical culture distinguishes between tunes and melodies (German doesn’t), but they all understand the difference. She then quotes Ferruccio Busoni’s somewhat cumbersome definition of melody, which she takes issue with, and then goes on to give the bones of a better definition throughout the book. I shan’t repeat these wrangles here, but they do serve to illustrate how this distinction between melody and tune is still not really settled. (I’ve put my tuppence-worth below.)

Holst then quotes Erik Satie saying ‘A melody does not have its harmony any more than a landscape has its colour.’ By this I believe Satie meant to distinguish between tunes that are dependent upon their harmony for their musical effect – as with, for example, most country and western or rhythm and blues songs – and actual melodies that can stand alone. Holst then writes of the opening of Schubert’s 9th Symphony (‘The Great’) saying:

The opening of that same symphony is a superb example of a tune that can exist naked and unsupported, having all the balance that is needed for conveying the vitality of its form.

This capacity for independent existence regardless of harmonic accompaniment is what turns a tune into a melody. It’s not that melodies are tunes minus harmony. It’s that in tunes the harmony contains and constrains the melodic line, whereas in melodies the harmony has a secondary role; it follows the melody which is unconstrained and fee to flow wherever it will.

Holst also points out that the simple structure of tune that seems so natural to us, and which we all recognise automatically, actually took hundreds of years to develop. Anyone who doubts this should listen to the 11th Century composer Hildegard von Bingen (I suggest Canticles of Ecstasy performed by Sequentia; it’s on Youtube). She’s almost there, but not quite. Her long, pleasing melodic lines sound unstructured to our ears; something routine is missing, perhaps an economical shape to contain and make predictable the melodic phrasing, and perhaps some recurring rhythm to give it direction. Her melodies seem to drift on and on, aimlessly at times.

So we can ask, and will, if these constructions really are melodies (and they certainly aren’t tunes)? Actually, no they aren’t. They are note-rows. They have cropped up in several periods in the history of music, three of which being early church music, the twelve-tone system, and ‘free jazz,’ typically in the work of Ornette Coleman.

Another point Holst makes is that those musical fragments that seem most “tuneful,” that is, the bits of a song we most easily remember, or go away whistling, derive their memorability or tunefulness by approximating human speech patterns or other human rhythms such as the “ONE-two-three-four. ONE-two-three-four…” of walking or marching, or even perhaps the “ka-Thump, ka-Thump” of the heartbeat. A melodic sequence that mimics the rise and fall of common speech, and which mimics the rhythms of walking or the heartbeat is heard as musical, catchy and memorable.

The invention of bar-lines was a very big deal when it came in. These enabled melodic rows to be managed as discrete chunks held together by regular timed rhythms; One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four… and so on. Simple harmony, developed only in the West, enabled composers to think through the implications of their melodic lines. A repeating C note might also imply accompanying G and E notes, that is, it might sound added-to when these notes were played as well, and subtracted-from (or just plain horrible) when, say, G# or E# notes were played alongside the C, and playing these C-G-E notes together formed the triad of the C-chord. This in turn implied other triads, usually those constructed around what came to be called dominant and sub-dominant notes (according to their relationship to the original note, just like the C-G-E above). But the distinctions were subtle and not immediately apparent, and were argued over for many years, giving rise to alternative “modes” as they too came to be called, and quite often these modes made a lot of sense, had a kind of immediate appeal. Indeed, they were the dominant forms of expression for many cultures, and hence retain the names of the cultures where they originated to this day – the Ionian, Dorian and Phrygian modes and so forth. But for whatever reasons (and I suspect that the reasons were cognitive rather than merely cultural) the Major and Minor keys were developed in the West, and then all manner of complexity was added to them – augmented, diminished, relative minors, and such.

Now composers could divide their music into both vertical and horizontal dimensions. What sounds so trite in pop songs was actually a huge achievement.

In my early years of writing songs I struggled trying to understand why some songs I wrote seemed pre-destined to take a specific form, say, AABA or ABCA, whereas others opened up all kinds of possibilities, perhaps even ABCDEA. I came to see that tunes are written from within harmonic and rhythmic structures – bar-lines and keys – whereas melodies spring from their own inner tensions and energies, have their own logic, and are only later clothed in harmony and structure.

To give a simple example, consider a blues tune. From the opening notes one can predict almost exactly where it will go. Consider the classic Bessie Smith Empty Bed Blues. If it starts in the key of G (for guitarists) we know that it will run through the keys of C and D:

G: I woke up this morning with an
C: awful aching
G: head. I said I woke
C: up this morning with an awful aching
G: head. My
D: new man had left me just a
C: room and an empty
G: bed

Simplicity is its great virtue. The second line (mostly in C) is merely a repeat of the first (mostly in G). The third line leaps up to the key of D, glides down through the key of C again, before finally coming home to rest in G once more. It may seem limited but there is a lot packed into that little structure, and it provides maximum opportunity for interpretation, which was the real aim of the blues – authenticity! As authors know, anyone can write something long-winded and complex, speckling it with good one-liners that they have overheard someone else say somewhere; the real artistry lies in editing it down into a form that seems so simple as to feel utterly natural, and that’s what the blues is.

In contrast, consider the equally simple (sounding) Beatles song Yesterday. To illustrate I’ll present the lyrics to the 1st verse:

All my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
Oh I believe in yesterday.

(In the published manuscript it’s in the key of F, but here I’ll transpose it up a tone to G for direct comparison with Empty Bed Blues.)

The first (brief) line of three syllables in the key of G gives little indication of what may follow. It’s a kind of questioning statement that invites a resolution. The second line is utterly different in every way from the first; an ascending up-surge of nine syllables beginning in F#m, passing through B and ending in the key of Em. The third line, also of nine syllables, begins in yet another key – C – and descends through D to the home key of G. These second and third lines are mirror-sounding images of each other; one going up and the other down. Then the final line of eight syllables travels through four more keys – F, Em7, A and C – finally coming home to rest in G again. The verse is ‘through-composed’ to use another imprecise musical term, that is, it has no repetitions.

So what is really happening here? Why so many different keys? And what are the real underlying differences between the two approaches?

What’s happening is that the two approaches have differing purposes, and I believe that music is incomplete without at least some of each. The blues tune gains its appeal from closely approximating the rise and fall – the ‘cadences’ – of ordinary speech patterns, and the rhythms of walking and movement, and of the heart-beat. It presents a melodic line that actually sounds somewhat similar to how one would say the actual words of the song if one were just telling a friend the story. This makes it sound authentic. Only a minimum of harmonic clothing and other musical elaboration is required to give it musicality (but some is required otherwise it would be just speech). The harmonic accompaniment is of the simplest form (tonic, dominant, sub-dominant in technical jargon, or ‘three chords and the truth’ as the country musos say), and further musicality is derived from the repetition of the first line. The early inventors of the blues instinctively knew that music thrives on repetition (Holst makes much of this element), and so they arrived at this structure. It may well be merely the kind of story one might tell a friend, but with a little harmonic variation and that selective repetition, all bound up in a transparent, regular structure, one is suddenly transported somewhere else. (Then the singer lets rip.)

In contrast, in the song Yesterday the melodic line seems to have a mind of its own, flowing here and there, touching this or that key in seemingly no pre-determined manner, following its own inner direction without repeats, and only sounding somewhat like ordinary speech, though not totally unlike it for that would seem jarring and unnatural. It actually sounds like something a bit more than just ordinary speech; art-full speech perhaps; at least some of the interpretation that the blues singer would inject is right there in the melody. There is a slight accent on ‘far away’ (first beat of the bar) that seems to suggest something unthinkable, rather than merely distant. Then there is a slight accent on ‘here to stay’ (first beat of the bar again) that seems to concretize the presence of the singer’s troubles, to place them inside the singer rather then merely close by. And then there are those minor keys (relative minors in the jargon) which seem to place an additional slight strain upon the melodic lines, not unlike how a blues singer would inject a slightly-out-of-tune ‘blue-note’ for emphasis at various points (blue-notes are sometimes called ‘worried notes’). This is artful stuff. But it too sounds quite simple!

Empty Bed Blues is a tune, perfectly crafted for its purpose. Yesterday is a melody, equally perfectly crafted for its purpose. Melodies are more sophisticated than tunes; they take the essentials of tune and then suspend some of them or play with others of them, or even abandon some elements. Often they seem asymmetrical in shape; the different phrase-lengths of Yesterday being a good example. Simplicity is the great virtue that both of these songs share, but the melody of Yesterday is actually quite complex.

Genres that are based on tunes can soon become musically boring, which is why so many country songs sound the same; it’s actually become quite hard nowadays to write a memorable country tune because so many have been written that are not memorable. The best of modern blues and country rely on the message they convey, or the vocal or instrumental skills of the performers, rather than any intrinsic musicality within the songs. On the other hand, music that sounds too complex can be a real turn-off. The simplicity of Empty Bed Blues is direct, minimal, immediate and raw, whereas the simplicity of Yesterday is more contrived, though equally convincing. Ideally (IMHO) we want a song that is tuneful or familiar-sounding, but also contains some surprising novelty, that is, melodic. We want the familiar rising-and-falling speech patterns and the familiar rhythms of walking and heartbeat, that together constitute the “tuneful” parts, to be incorporated into a much more expansive, novel and exploratory melodic line that takes us on a journey into unknown territory. When we feel we might be losing our way it’s nice to have those familiar “tuneful” bits to sustain us, but we also want to follow the path to the end to see where it takes us. This is the goal of the art-song, and the best of all forms of song when they strive to be more than just a few bars of familiar-sounding pap.

Listening to a lot of art-song as I do it sometimes strokes me that this is what is too-often lacking; the melody takes us on a journey all right, but the tuneful bits, which really constitute the stepping stones, are absent, and the result sound soulless. Most second rate art-song sounds like that; clever, complex and usually set to important poetry, but just entirely lacking the common touch or the human element. The only reason it is performed is because it provides challenges to the singer who gets to show his or her voice off, and this is fine of course for singers, but perhaps less so for their audience.

The composition processes of the two approaches are different too. Imagine the average singer-songwriter setting out to compose their next hit. He or she sits down with their guitar, strums through some familiar chords and hums a bit, and sees whether or not something comes, perhaps a word or two on a note or two, maybe a line from the argument they had with their partner last night or some sage advice a friend gave them once. Then they just keep on experimenting until something seems to come together, perhaps a little extra repetition or a fancy skipped-beat, or even some harmony from another singer or instrumentalist.

In contrast, melodies are written without reference to harmonic accompaniment; Paul McCartney has actually told of how the melody for Yesterday came to him in a dream and he feared that perhaps someone else might have written it. Only later did he sit down at the piano and work out what the chords were.

This distinction between tune and melody helps us understand why so much of modern serious music sounds so empty. They’ve done away with tonality, and with it melody. Okay, we get that; they are trying to push on past Gustav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky. There is much great music that has little or no actual melody in any song-like sense to it; that is, no sinuous melodic verse structures like Yesterday. One of my favourite composers, Anton Bruckner, wrote very few actual song-like melodies. But to do away with tune is something else (and Bruckner was always tuneful). At the end of her book, Holst considers the music of Arnold Schoenberg:

In Schoenberg’s melodies each note has a definite interval-relationship to the notes which precede and follow it. But the ordinary listener in the audience, who is, after all, the potential hummer of tunes, has no way of recognising the relationship.

This is because the melodic line has a relationship only with itself, unconnected with human experience, and especially unconnected with the human experience that comes closest to music – speech. Yet Holst notes that Schoenberg himself wrote in 1947 (well after he invented his twelve-tone system): “I want people to know and whistle my melodies. I don’t want to be ‘interesting.’”

In sum, tune connects music with our emotions, and melody is at its best when most tuneful. For examples of songs without tunefulness, listen to Lori Laitman or Ned Rorem (examples on Youtube). These songs are not without a certain charm; Laitman’s Refrigerator gains with repeated listening. Rorem’s compositions are said to be of a ‘chromatic tonal idiom’ and I suppose Laitman’s are too. But when I listen to them I just think of the New England arts scene; a million people who have been institutionalised within the arts for generations. They may listen to an atonal composition for prepared piano, steel drums, theremin, sitar and massed tubas, and as long as it is given a name something like ‘Threnody for the Lost Children of (insert your favourite disaster)’ they will emerge proclaiming it to be a ‘profound testament to the human spirit.’ Hmmmm.

My definition of the distinction between tune and melody is: In tunes the melodic line is derived from the harmony and the structure, whereas in melodies the harmony and structure are determined by the melodic line.

The best composers wrote masterpieces of both kinds. Listen to Franz Schubert’s Das wandern as a perfect tune, or to his Heidenroslein as a slightly more adventurous tune that develops some definitely melody-like elements, and then to his Wanderer’s nachtlied (Uber allen gipfeln ist ruh) and his An die musik as perfect melodies. Then, to appreciate just how far out melodies can go at their absolute best, listen to Henri Duparc’s L’invitation au voyage and Phidyle, and also to Michael Head’s The estuary (all on Youtube). Breath-taking stuff!

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