Making melodies

June 4, 2008

Melody can manifest itself in a variety of ways.

The composer takes a big breath and out comes a phrase that can, by default, be a lung-full of air. Human emotions and experiences infuse melodies: crying, shouting, talking, sighing, praying, scolding, questioning, calling… This is the emotional physicality behind a phrase of music. At least for me, a Western composer. (Melodies in other musical cultures are different.)

For a composer, melodic shapes and rhythmic ideas can arise out of words, verses, phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Meaning, the composer can look at words — usually lyrics or poetry — and they “hear” melodies. The melodies they compose can either go with the logical flow of a sentence as one would normally speak it, or the composer can twist it, distort the flow, dwell on a word, repeat a phrase or word, or stretch it out so long that you forget what the beginning of the sentence was.

Rameau and his club felt that the melody was the top note of the chord progression, and was driven BY that progression. The long line of Italian composers of musical drama have clearly put melody first: harmony is supportive.

Melodies can be assembled from chains of memorable little motives (listen to the opening of Beethoven 5th Symphony in your head — hear it? It’s all generated from that little idea).

Melodies can be manifesters (sic) of rhythm. Think Jobim’s “One note samba” and Beethoven’s 7th Symphony Allegretto.

Melodies can be written by putting notes a page by a composer or a bird with ink on its talons.

Melodies can be generated using note generating processes like the 12-tone technique.

Melody became the enemy in the post-Webernian revolution.

Melody can be called such sometimes only by the virtue that some musical element is in the foreground of the musical texture.


I heard some new songs last night by a well known composer. Beautifully written for the voice. Were they melodies? Uh, sure. She was singing the songs, so they have to be melodies. But why is it that some melodies are so damn memorable and others are not. Is it that some composers write in paragraphs and some in verse? and the memorable ones are usually in verse, because our brains can perceive phrase structure better in bite-sized pieces?

I have a friend who really is incapable of writing a melody. His melodies are all constructed. There is no emotion, no lung full of air, just note manipulation. Late composer/teacher Donald Martino told us regularly that “anyone can write a good tune.” We would nod and agree, but as the years go on, I just don’t think it’s true. When I graduated from Harvard, I asked my teacher, Earl Kim, whether he thought I was good at anything. “Roger, you write damn good melodies.” Being given this vote of confidence was encouraging.

Embracing melodies in the early 1980s was like a musical “coming out” for me. It took guts to do it, because most of your friends would call you a wuss. I’d be called conservative even though I didn’t and don’t think of myself as a conservative. I had to realize: this is who I am. I will never be the next Elliott Carter, nor would I want to be.

In my compositional technique, I compose the long line first, and from that, my composition has a foreground and scaffolding on which it can develop. If it is a song, the lyrics always come first. The melody colors and conveys the content and emotion of the words. An instrumental melody is free of the implications of those words, and its meaning can be whatever the listener imagines it to be.

Human beings, being monophonic instruments, will always embrace melody. To that end, there will always be room for new melodies.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

DJA June 4, 2008 at 10:21 am

Late composer/teacher Donald Martino told us regularly that “anyone can write a good tune.”

Wow — that is so manifestly and obviously untrue (not to mention self-serving), I can’t imagine anyone saying this without being greated by howls of derisive laughter.

Brad Wood June 4, 2008 at 11:46 am

I recently purchased, but have yet to dig much into, David Cope’s Computer Models of Musical Creativity. In the preface he provokes: “…I will contend that computer programs CAN create. I will further contend that those who do not believe this have probably defined creativity so narrowly that humans could not be said to create.”

He is self-described as a “professional composer for over fifty years and a programmer for almost thirty years.”

I wonder what his music, and in particular the melodies, sound like?

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