Describing melody I: Bad melodies

January 17, 2006

In the Baroque, Italian composers deemed melody as the most important element in a composition, whereas French composers held melody as subordinate to harmony, melody being merely the top voice of a progression of chords. This is clearly an oversimplification, but these philosophies have resonated down through the ages. Some songwriters come up with a chord progression and improvise a melody to fit it. Some songwriters write words first then fashion a tune to fit it, and then figure out what chords best accompany it. And finally, some songwriters come up with a tune, compose the harmonic accompaniment, and then come up with words that sound appropriate, or at least cool. (For an informative program on melody, listen to this NPR special on melody.)

My modernist colleagues don’t really like to even use the term “melody” as it evokes a musical language that they are happy to see gone (see my post on Jan. 15 on Sequenza21). Famous teacher of 20th century composers, Nadia Boulanger, urged her pride to embrace “la grande ligne” or the grand line as a kind of scaffolding from which the song or composition hangs.

Each of us has our own taste in melody. I prefer one that has an attractive shape, that goes somewhere, and has a well planned climax. I have little patience for a wandering operatic recitative whose function is not so much to melodically entertain, but to impart text using notes. I, like the masses of yore who would talk and even leave during the recitatives, wait for the arias: there is the real melodic reward.

Take a look at this melody:

Beethoven, Symphony No.7: Allegretto

This is the opening of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7. Using the aesthetic criteria I put forth, this melody is dull and boring. (Melody did not come easy to Beethoven. His sketchbooks show that he labored profoundly trying to come up with a great tune.) Add the chords and the rhythmic motive (quarter, eighth eighth quarter quarter) and that bad melody becomes unforgettable.

The Eurhythmics, an 80s duo fronted by Annie Lenox, recorded “Sweet Dreams” and made millions from one of the worst melodies I know. Look at the notes below and you’ll see the entire tune comes from these three (ok, four) notes. Sung out of context, the tune is aimless and repetitive, with no direction or shapely construction. But add Annie’s butch delivery, and that electro-pop hook underneath, and everyone races for the dance floor.

Sweet Dreams melodic source

The melody of “Sweet Dreams” can be thought of as “organic” in that the melody of the verses are all generated by this melodic sequence. The melody of the Beethoven passage is organic in that it all is delivered atop the incessant rhythm. Rufus Wainwright writes organic melodies as well. They are not wandering recitatives, or tunes that rely on underlying vamps or rhythms. They are melodies that can stand alone and shine. Add the accompaniment and they are even better. This is one of the qualities of his music I find so attractive, and one that I will be exploring in my book.

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