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

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