Describing melodies II: What people like

January 18, 2006

I discovered a most remarkable piece of information today: a list of the 365 top selling songs of the 20th century as compiled by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). I encourage you to spend a few minutes and look down the list to see what songs have charmed Americans for the past eleven decades (sorry, I’d love to see similar statistics for Europe; if anyone finds this information let me know). What does it tell me? Well, that Americans are fickle and unpredictable in their tastes. The list is truly a who’s who in popular music. No one gets to stay at the top for too long. Even the Beatles. I note that Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, and Stevie Wonder are the only artists to have two or more top selling songs. Sure, everyone on the list has fans for life, but as far as staying on top, it just doesn’t happen. People want variety. It changes from year to year. Pick any 10 consecutive years and look at the songs. No matter who or how old you are, you’ll find songs that you know, and that likely have special meaning for you. As weird as it is, the mercurial tastes of the public is unpredictable and wonderful.

I’d love to study the melodies on this list and see whether there is anything they have in common. I don’t see “Sweet Dreams” on the list, (see my previous post) or Jobim’s “One Note Samba.” Most of the songs I recognize are all fairly melodic, and are songs that people like to sing. (I don’t claim to know all these songs and would appreciate it if you would point out the songs that have bad melodies.)

When we go to a museum and see a piece of artwork we are attracted to, we have the option of buying a print of it, or a book by the artist. In music, when we hear a song we like, we buy (or procure one way or another) a recording of the song so that we can relive the experience as often as we like. And quite often, we love to sing along with it. We can only reproduce the song in our body by singing the melody (unless you have Bobby McFerrin talents). We are able to reproduce the song monophonically in our voice, or whistle it, and many of us “hear” the accompaniments in our inner ear. We can own the song without an iPod or CD, LP, or tape player just by singing it. Singing it (most often alone) creates a biochemical “high.” Like most drugs, their effects wear off after a while, and we move on to find another that produces a similar effect.

As we age, old songs that we used to love come back and rekindle the old buzz. We hum them, listen to them, shed a tear, get covered with goose bumps, and remember. Melodies that we learn in our youth, especially between, say, 10 and 18, are irrationally special to us. They may or may not be good melodies. It doesn’t matter. They remind us of old times. Old friends. Smells. Places.

Such is the power of melody.

Melody Book (A Second Book) by Dorothy Gaynor Blake

VT ImageBase (, housed and operated by Digital Library and Archives, University Libraries; scanning by Digital Imaging, Learning Technologies, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. URN 03SM0381

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Rhapsody January 18, 2006 at 8:13 am

Music does seem to engage various parts of the brain where memories are stored. It must be that there is a bona fide physiology to listening to music that is able to combine the senses with memory details and store them with particular melodies. I’ve often had the experience of listening to a song that brings back memories–sight, sounds, scents and events. Perhaps this is true of art in general. Looking at paintings or watching a ballet has a similar effect. Even a predilection for certain poems or novels seems tied to the particular experiences that are tapped in each individual reader as he/she reads. We filter our responses to art through a sifter of our unique experiences and memories.

Listening to new music that is just similar to a favorite piece can sometimes dredge up past memories so that the “new” song is stored “along side” the old one.

I remember that a doctor friend of mine once told me that the one emotion that is not stored for recall or tied to a particular memory or experience is pain. I suppose that is why moms can remember the experience of giving birth without having the urge to slap their children.

kae January 18, 2006 at 8:27 pm

I have always had especially great fun singing Rufus’s songs, but they are particularly difficult to sing along to. In the spectrum of pop music, I would place them at the end, opposite to the japanese ditties that are especially designed for karaoke. The first song of Rufus I fell for was “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”. There’s this line that’s slightly different from the others, the “and then there’s those other things…” : I worked so hard figuring out how to sing that part, it’s ridiculous. But then, there’s great fun to think about those songs as great tasks or puzzles, especially when the voice range doesn’t match or there’s a long “vibrate” to hold.

jan2 January 19, 2006 at 12:47 am

I was rather amazed to see on the Sequenza blog this continuing resistance to melody, alongside a somewhat precious high-modern defense of contemporary classical music. Did these guys never really understand postmodernism at all? (They seem to think Zorn is ok – he qualifies as ‘high culture’ in some way I guess) I am sure you are right that Rufus Wainwright songs tend to be ‘organic’ in their development of melodies. But some of them also seem, to someone musically uneducated like me, to be quite complex in terms of the melodies themselves, which develop over a rather long time for a ‘pop’ song, and tend to have 2 or 3 rather than just one themes within them (this seems easiest to hear on the earlier albums).

I’ve been listening to another ‘pop’ musician, the violinist Owen Pallett, who builds up his songs from an initial tape loop – it’s a much more explicit putting-together of ‘melody’ (which I now see I have to write in scare quotes!) than you usually hear in pop songs. Procedurally, this also seems to blur some popular-classical boundaries: Isn’t this rather similar to what some contemporary classical electronic musicians do – I’ve heard classical recorder players use tape loops in this way? Is there room in such overlapping circumstances for spats over who has a melody and who has a ‘line’?


Valkyrie January 20, 2006 at 9:34 am

Hmmm . ..

It’s very simple for me. I like a surprise. That’s the kind of melodic “hook” that gets to me.

In the song “Poses”, you have this straightforward little song, nothing special at first, and then it suddenly falls off from a nice polite major key into a darker tinged tune with the hint of a minor note. It gets me every time I listen to it.

The song “Peach Trees” was a tune that I had a hard time bonding with at first, it was so unusual, so “all over the place”. Quickly it became one of my favorites, though. It’s hooks are not so much the wandering melody and harmonies, but the changes in the song’s ambience. I think that “Memphis Skyline” resembles “Peach Trees” in a similar way, a wandering song that changes its feelings totally at some point.

Not your usual melodic “hook”, maybe something new and different.

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