Melodic gravity

January 26, 2010

There is a melodic principle, or tendency in melodies from the Renaissance; we teach it in counterpoint exercises known as species counterpoint. The rule I’m thinking about right now is that of gravity. After the melody leaps up––say the interval of a fourth to an octave––the tones after said leap must recover in the opposite direction, usually a step, but occasionally a third. (Think the first three note of “Somewhere O-[ver the Rainbow] and you’ll hear the principle: leap up, and then recover. That’s the melodic principle of gravity.

I teach this principle by likening it to gravity. Think of a ball. Throw it as high as you can up into the air. Then it stops and falls back to the earth. The height from the ground to that turn-around point is like the range of an instrument. A ball can’t be thrown up and then hover. So melody defies this and CAN hover, but the voice must eventually come down, as the tones in our sentences fall down. The opposite would keep a high note for a climactic dramatic purpose.

Rarely do tunes just ramp up and down a scale. They sashay and tease, jump and recover, and hover for effect. We breathe in sympathy to that tune and breathe when it does. Stravinsky once complained about the organ: “The monster never breathes.”

P.S. Susan reminds me that good organist DO know how to breathe. Which reminds me of our mutual late teacher, Elliott Forbes who, at Harvard when he taught species counterpoint, referred to the whole leap-recover thing like this: “From time to time one takes a lusty jump into sin and leaps–never larger than an octave–and one atones for that sin by recovering by step in the opposite direction.” I never thought of him as a hard core Christian, but I love the notion of melodic leaping as a lusty leap–it makes composing that much more erotic.

Image: “Runner” by Roger Bourland. Ink and guauche on silk paper.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Leonid January 27, 2010 at 9:15 am

Roger, thank you for your post. I LOVE the painting, it is intense, expressive, and balanced.

On the topic of counterpoint:

I find it disturbing that some self-proclaimed “artists” try to use the work of Back – to many of us, the greatest composer who ever lived – for their tasteless experiments. For example:

“Listening to Bach, Baroque Turbo Trance”,

You pointed out in one of your earlier posts that mere simultaneity does not necessarily produce texture. It can produce sound effect(s), true, but that’s about it. Not all combinations of what have you (notes, chords, sound complexes, figures) are aesthetically meaningful.

A composer is someone who has confident command of the art and craft of harmony and, first and foremost, counterpoint – understood broadly as principles of texture formation.

I am disturbed by the fact that many composition students neglect this discipline, view it as dry and unnecessary. Because THAT – command of grammar, syntax – is exactly what distinguishes a professional from an amateur, who does hear a good tune or two in his head, now and then. Amatures just have to live with it. Period. They are NOT composers. No, nein, non, njet.

As one film character famously said, a man must know his limitations.

Moscow, Russia

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