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.

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