Why melody?

September 15, 2015

I have another essay titled ‘Tune, Melody and Note-row’ where I distinguish between these terms, and in that writing I explain why. I take my ideas mostly from Imogen Holst’s little book Tune (1962), one of those great obscure classics that has slipped entirely from view. But the truth is, most of us don’t distinguish between them, and even classically-trained people often just plain don’t know the difference. So I suggest readers also look at that piece as well as this.

And because melody is such a subjective thing, feel free to strongly disagree with everything I write (I do, often!)

I’ve decided that those singular melodies and tunes that seem to have an innate, immediate, transparent universal appeal are arrived at almost by an accidental process. You don’t sit down to write Yesterday or Greensleeves; you just make yourself available by listening inside for a long time, years even, decades perhaps, and if you are incredibly lucky something like that jumps up. There’s no practice or will involved; it’s largely a matter of luck. Some really fine songwriters spend all their careers writing great, successful songs, but never manage to write anything approaching those songs. And if we look at those who do write them, they usually only write one.

For example, Franz Schubert wrote many wonderful melodies, but that instantaneously transcendent quality only appeared once, in Ave Maria; I doubt if he would ever have written another even had he lived to a ripe old age, which of course he didn’t. It’s not even my favourite Schubert melody, Wanderers Nachtlied (uber allen gipfeln) is, but anyone can hear that Ave Maria has that luminous – almost ghostly – quality that Wanderers’ Nachtlied doesn’t. Similarly, Robert Schumann only wrote one, Mondnacht. Similarly, Ludwig van Beethoven and the opening theme from the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata; he wrote so much else that is immortal, but that theme really was a one-off (although admittedly Fur Elise comes close). Bach only did it once too: Erbarme dich, mein Gott from the St. Matthew Passion.

Gabriel Faure, another great melodist perhaps second only to Schubert, never wrote one, though he wrote some breath-takingly stunning melodies. John Dowland never did either; I used to so wish that someone might discover that Miserere my maker, another transcendent gem, had been written by Dowland, but no, it’s by Anonymous, who probably wrote nothing else memorable. And of course Greensleeves has been ‘attributed’ to King Henry the Eighth; believe that if you wish, but again I suggest that it was probably a one-off and that the original song-writer whoever she or he was has been forgotten because they produced little else of any consequence.

There’s probably some deep unconscious creative skill involved, but we can only guess at its nature.

So here I look primarily at the next level down; classics and standards, and how we might compose such melodies and tunes. But first I need to acknowledge the experts.

For much of my adult life I asked every trained musician I met “How do you write long melodies?” To a man they looked at me like “What the hell kind of dumb question is that?” Plainly they’d never even thought about it. I’d assumed that they taught such skills at university, but it turns out that no, they don’t. Don’t just take my word for this; here’s a quote from what I consider to be the best text on melody writing by a genuine expert:

The first part of this book concentrates on melody, a subject not usually taught in depth or even touched on in most music colleges because, unlike harmony, no theories of melody have been sufficiently codified to have become part of academia.

This is from the Introduction to Melody in Songwriting by Jack Perricone (2000), the textbook used in song-writing classes at the Berklee College of Music, Boston.

So just think about this for a moment. We’ve come through two millennia of studying music (the ancient Greeks tried their hands at it), and we’ve pushed every other component of music – rhythm, form, harmony and timbre – to the limits of Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Robert Moog and beyond, but no one has come up with a useful theory of melody. What an extraordinary gap!

Several things flow from this. First, don’t be too impressed by the experts because it turns out that they don’t know much more than you do. The wisest words I have ever read on melody also come from Jack Perricone:

The one question my students most often ask me is, “When you compose a song, do you really think of [this technique]?” I say, “Yes I do, especially when I get stuck.” But then I explain that… if you only use your rational mind in composing a song you will most likely have an undesirable result – a dry, unmoving group of notes logically organized but emotionally barren. A song that moves others must be written by someone who has been moved, who has felt moments of inspiration, who has had an intuitive experience… Intuition in song-writing involves more than your body and mind. It involves your emotions as well. In fact, your emotions and spirit usually are the driving forces in writing a song…

Perricone’s book is about preparing for that moment of inspiration, and working it out after it has arrived or when one becomes stuck, but the moment of inspiration itself remains a mystery.

In another life I used to be a psychologist, so I can give an overview of the process involved. It won’t help, but here it is:

Inspiration involves our deepest emotions, our very sense of Self-hood. People who experience inspiration have previously committed themselves to their subject in the deepest ways. All of their lives have coalesced around the objective (writing music or whatever) and finally have led up to the happy moment. They have usually also experienced a period of gestation, of trying and trying but not quite succeeding at the task. Finally they relax and let it all go, either from exhaustion or disillusionment or just distraction. Then their unconscious mind, where the creative process resides (and remains mysterious), projects into consciousness the ‘solution’ to their problem. It’s no accident that creation infamously occurs in ‘the bed, the bath or the bog.’ That is, quite literally, in bed where Keith Richards dreamed up the ‘da-daaaa-da-da-daaa’ riff of Satisfaction, or the bath where Archimedes had his ‘Eureka!’ moment, or the toilet with Martin Luther (well, actually Luther suffered from chronic constipation so he spent quite a lot of time in the bog, hence it’s not surprising that the muse visited him there).

(Of course, there is also the faux-inspiration of psychosis, but that’s a different subject.)

The philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche had described the moment of inspiration thus:

If one had the slightest trace of superstition left in one it would hardly be possible to set aside the idea that one is the incarnation, mouthpiece, and medium of almighty powers. The idea of revelation, in the sense that something suddenly and with unspeakable certainty and purity becomes visible, audible, something that profoundly convulses and upsets one, simply describes the fact. One hears – one does not seek; one takes – one does not ask who gives; a thought suddenly flashes up like lightning, it comes of necessity and unfalteringly formed – I have never had a choice in the matter. One is seized by an ecstasy, whose fearful tension is sometimes relieved in a storm of tears, while one’s steps now involuntarily rush along, now involuntarily lag… Everything is in the highest degree involuntary but takes place in a tempest of freedom, of absoluteness, of power and divinity.

There’s also a lovely story of Pablo Picasso; when he was quite old someone asked him why he still went to his studio every day. He is reported to have replied something like “These days the Muse doesn’t visit me very often, but when she does I prefer her to catch me at work.”

And finally, a quote from Keef:

We sat there in the kitchen and I started to pick away at these chords… “It is the evening of the day.” I might have written that. “I sit and watch the children play,” I certainly wouldn’t have come up with that. We had two lines and an interesting chord sequence, and then something took over somewhere in this process. I don’t want to say mystical but you can’t put your finger on it. Once you’ve got that idea the rest will come. It’s like you’ve planted a seed, then you water it a bit and suddenly it sticks up out of the ground and goes, hey, look at me. The mood is made somewhere in the song. Regret, lost love. Maybe one of us had just busted up with a girlfriend. If you can find the trigger that kicks off the idea, the rest of it is easy. It’s just hitting the first spark. Where it comes from, God knows.

There’s no driving this process; one can only prepare for it in order to be ready when it comes. Then one must consciously ‘let go’ to permit the process to blossom within. As well, one must be ready to follow the inspiration into unfamiliar territory. Further, because this inspiration has sprung from the depths, it may contain all manner of threatening or confronting associations that have deeply personal meanings for the experiencer, and perhaps just for them alone; no one else may appreciate the significance of the material evoked. It can be very lonely following one’s muse far out into some strange dimension that no one else understands; the question naturally arises: “Am I going mad?” Which is why creative geniuses often need a support person they can lean upon, someone who affirms and validates and encourages them through their doubts and fears. Sir Edward Elgar had his wife Alice, eight years older than he; Leos Janacek had Kamila Stosslova, 38 years younger and married to another. (Sigmund Freud had Wilhelm Fliess, but that’s another story.)

Then there’s the little matter of being true to oneself. Burt Bacharach has advised “I think that what you write is what you are.” I used to wonder why he and lyricist Hal David never wrote a great protest song; they clearly could have, but it just wasn’t them, though they shared the temper of the times (I just have this fantasy of a really melodic protest song). I tried for years to write like Neil Diamond; I figured it had to be easy because his songs were so simple and mainstream. It took me a long time to realize that if it’s not really you then you can’t do it. I can’t write a good protest song either; my songs always seem to have some personal element. It’s pointless trying to copy; you won’t be successful. You just have to be yourself and hope that others will value what you produce, and that’s scary too.

There’s a nice quote from, I think, Dion (of The Wanderer fame). It runs something like “Buddy Holly advised me once: ‘I don’t know much about success Dion, but I know how to be a failure – try to please everyone.’”

So, back to melody.

Although Perricone has said that “no theories of melody have been sufficiently codified to have become part of academia,” nevertheless some theories of melody are out there. There’s a book titled Theory of Melody by Paul Narveson, which does a pretty good job of explaining some of how melody works. It describes all manner of details such as ‘The basic types of melodic phrases’ and ‘Short and long-ranged melodic design’ and so forth. It names such matters as ‘The Law of Compensation’ and ‘The Law of Subordination,’ ‘Flexible design’ and ‘The master sub-surface design’ and the like. It’s rather clumsily written, the guy has spent too long in academia, but it’s worth working through; I got through about half of it, and I probably will re-visit it from time to time.

But one thing I’m sure of is that Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson never read this book, and the significance of that is that they have produced wonderful melodies and Narveson hasn’t. So clearly something is missing from the book.

The problem is that Narveson’s book, while significant, is merely descriptive and analytic. We would like something prescriptive, but that is impossible! Narveson analyses melodies and sheds much light on them, but getting inside a melody and figuring out why it has the effect it does, demands something more. For, there often is no good reason why a melody is the way it is, rather than the composer’s preferences. In analysing a melody we soon reach a place where we recognise that the composer could have gone this way or that in developing the material; two equally good possibilities arose, and the composer chose one over the other, not because he or she detected some Golden Mean within it, that is, some objective superiority in the one possibility over the other, but rather perhaps because they liked the way it bounced rather than skipped, or they preferred a syncopation to a lilt, or it fitted the words better or something. Such judgments can’t be reduced to rules; you’d need to be able to explain the composer’s entire psychology. Melodies can be described post-hoc, and analysed in great detail, but they can’t be prescribed because the basket of solutions chosen for the final product is invariably subjective and often is quite idiosyncratic (they constitute the composer’s ‘style’).

In classical music history there have been several instances where some monarch has written a theme of just a few bars and then invited Beethoven or Mozart and perhaps also several other prominent composers to compose sets of variations from that theme. The plethora of variations that emerge shows that there are probably a near-infinite number of possibilities. This is why, at the end of her book Tune, Imogen Holst writes:

If the four descending notes at the beginning of… Exercise 1 (the simple exercise that she began the book with) were to be increased to an octave and a half, it would take [performers] thirty-eight years to get through the 479,001,600 patterns before they got back to the beginning again.

The way I think of composing melodies nowadays is to imagine that at every point in a composition there are probably millions of possibilities, most of which I’m unaware of. I have to somehow listen within to discover where the music seems to be heading for me in order to put my next note down.

We are a long way from explaining the central mechanism of creativity. I happen to suspect that at least some of it is accidental; I’ve written some fine melodies because I’ve semi-consciously been running through something in my head, then kind of over-shot or hit a bum note or mistaken the rhythm (in my creative imaginings), and then realized “Oh, that sounds interesting.” We know that evolution works largely through mutations, things that go wrong, most of which are of no value, but by listening closely within we can detect the one-in-a-hundred that holds promise. That’s when it may be handy to have Perricone’s and Narveson’s books nearby. The little booklet (62 pages) Melody Writing by W. Lovelock is also very informative if it can still be found. (I can’t recommend much else.)

But I also believe that prolonged conscious commitment is necessary. The child who was inspired grows up to be the adult who serves their 10,000 hour apprenticeship (see the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he describes how, in order to get really good at some skill one needs to work the equivalent of 10,000 hours at it; one of his case studies is The Beatles), and who then stays true to their vision, will eventually get there. The main reason I never advanced in song-writing was because I wanted something else more (a career as a psychologist). You have to want that One True Thing more than anything else. I made my choice and I believe that it was the right one for me; I’ve no regrets, but now that I’m retired I get to return to my first love.

In sum, melody is the magical element in music that is elemental and uncanny, mystical even. One may study harmony, timbre, form and rhythm for years and emerge genuinely learned, but as every half-aware pop-tunesmith knows, you are only as good as your last hit. The ability to let go, and to listen inside, and the patience to await for something strange and pleasing to emerge – that can’t be taught, and must be begun anew with each new project. As Igor Stravinsky wrote (cited in Tune by Imogen Holst):

I am beginning to think, in full agreement with the general public, that melody must keep its place at the summit of the hierarchy of the elements that make up music. Melody is the most essential of those elements… [It] survives every change of system.

Mention of Stravinsky raises a thorny topic – modernism in all its seductive forms. Those of us who develop our taste in music sooner or later enter into the “avant-garde” with all its confusion. In my day it was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, Terry Riley’s In C, Steve Reich’s Violin phase, and Pierre Boulez’ Le Marteau sans maitre, and John Cage and Richard Rodney Bennett and so forth. An earlier generation had listened to Edgard Varese and Olivier Messiaen, and before them Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg and his students Anton Webern and Alban Berg. When one first hears the avant-garde one is likely to become convinced that this really is the music of the future: I certainly was. But the history of avant-gardism shows that every new innovator is first met with controversy, then their music becomes assimilated into the mainstream (often losing its muscularity) until eventually another generation finds it less interesting than most of what had gone before.

Why? Well, the limitations soon appear. For example, how would Riley follow up In C? Perhaps In C#? Then maybe In D? It starts to look a nonsense; that kind of music goes nowhere. Or consider Stockhausen’s Stimmung. How would he develop that further? Substitute the names of plants or recipes or fish for the names of Gods? He’s actually exhausted the entire possibilities of that musical language in one fell swoop. This reminds me of Stravinsky’s comment on hearing John Cage’s 4.33 (for the uninitiated, 4.33 is a composition with no music; the pianist comes out, opens the piano, does nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, then closes the piano takes a bow and leaves. The point is to draw attention to the non-musical sounds of the concert hall, the “accidental music” if you will). Stravinsky said that he found it very interesting and he looked forward to larger works in the same medium by the composer.

That was my journey. Since my day we’ve seen the likes of John Adams and Henryk Gorecki claim their fifteen minutes of fame. I still enjoy some of this; I saw a performance of Pierrot lunaire last year and was thrilled, and I still love Walton’s Facade and Berio’s Visage (with Kathy Berberian). Some of the avant-garde lasts. But when I want to listen to substantial music as opposed to being merely entertained, I prefer Karl Vine’s symphonies. If you want to hear how the avant-garde treats song listen to Lori Laitman and Ned Rorem; an acquired taste!

I also believe that serious music abandoned melody much too early, for there remains much to be achieved. In the first edition of Groves Dictionary of Music an editor wrote “Unfortunately the material of the simpler order of melody tends to be exhausted.” This was before the great outpouring of popular music, specifically the American Songbook, jazz, rock ‘n roll, and the likes of Kurt Weill and others who showed how incredibly inventive humans could be while using even the simplest materials. In his book Theory of Melody Paul Narveson notes that most western melody uses only a small range of what is possible, mostly the old tonic-dominant-subdominant arrangement without venturing into distant keys. And this isn’t even to argue for anything “far out.” Melodies like The girl from Ipanema and Take five are just as beguiling today as they were when they were written. The legacy of Henri Duparc remains to be exploited, and Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell showed how immensely appealing, even educational, quite humble materials – the old major and minor – remain.

In popular music, ever since Pink Floyd, every second man and his dog has gone artsy, with the result that there are some quite unlistenable monstrosities out there; I won’t name names but I’m sure you can. My simple test is this: first show me that you can write a passable tune and then I’ll listen to your more ambitious stuff. No, technique is not everything, of course not, but as Stravinsky advised, melody remains primary. I don’t listen to music for “sounds” or “feel” or “mood” (never understood what those terms actually mean), nor for concept or ideology (see my essay The act of listening), nor for performance, although jazz performances can be stunning, as are Sergiu Celibidache’s Bruckner concerts, but that’s not quite my thing.

Look, I love experimentalism as much as anyone, but please don’t try to claim the high ground, nor imagine that atonality or minimalism or some other flavour of the month is any kind of advance on melody and tonality. Things just aren’t that simple. A mature aesthetic takes a lifetime to develop and involves many different vantages. There really is an enduring place for “three chords and the truth” (just listen to the songs in the film Crazy Heart).

Today’s songwriters are really like journalists; they give reports from their time and place, using pretty much the same language that Shakespeare used, except that we use pretty much the same language that Bach used. And if we can find the odd unexpected wrinkle, some novel melodic twist or harmonic perturbation, then we will have, in our own small way, advanced the art. The days of the big pioneering advances – the Bach-to-Haydn-to-Mozart-to-Beethoven and onwards all the way to Mahler are over now, and cinema has supplanted the traditional arts, but we can still be innovative (look at jazz), and music forever retains its power.

Those who proclaim the supposedly more “sophisticated” styles of music really just do so because they can’t write a good tune.

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