Tuesday, December 4, 2007

What is Melody?

When talking about melody one should take a long look at the definitions that are provided via standard dictionaries and of course our trusty music dictionaries, before really examining what we aesthetically (and maybe even philosophically) think a melody truly is, or more to the point, what constitutes a melody and what doesn't.

My worn and trusty Webster's dictionary states that a melody is:

1. a) pleasing sounds or arrangements of sounds in sequence. b) musical quality, as in the arrangement of words. 2. Music a) a sequence of single tones, usually in the same key or mode, to produce a rhythmic whole; often, a tune, air, or song. b) the element of form having to do with the arrangement of a single tones in sequence (distinguished from harmony). c) the leading part, or voice, in a harmonic composition; the air.
Some of these are generic and need not be bothered with, however some of these terms create on interesting puzzle, in particular "a sequence of single tones... to produce a rhythmic whole." I find this to be a very vague statement  open to many possible interpretations. As it should be, because who is anyone to say what a melody is. And then, of course, there is the "pleasing sounds... in sequence" definition. This is just kind of a worthless definition in my mind. What is pleasing?

This brings me to my main purpose in delving into this topic, the aesthetic and philosophic ideas behind a 'melody'. Schoenberg talks about melody (outisde of the twelve-tone system) like it is something that 'should do this, and should do that, and progress in such-and-such a way.' I sincerely respect Schoenberg, but disagree with these statements entirely, for example:
"A well-balanced melody progresses in waves, i.e. each elevation is countered by a depression. It approaches a high point or climax through a series of intermediate lesser high points, interrupted by recession. Upward movements are balanced by downward movements; large intervals are compensated for by conjunct movements in the opposite direction. A good melody generally remains with a reasonable compass, not straying too far from a central range." (Schoenberg, Fndamentals of Composition, Ch, 4, p.16).
This brings to mind the quote by Laurie Anderson, "talking about music is like dancing about architecture", (and yes I do see the irony in me including these remarks in my thoughts). But I find Schoenberg's statement, although indicative of a true craftsman, lacking in the true aesthetic meaning of what constitues a melody, at least for myself.

So before we get into that, I want to delve into the idea of melody's function, if it has one, and even if it is necessary. I have heard pure texture pieces that have no particular melody to speak of, my own work is often lacking in a distinct melodic idea that I consider the most important thing in the piece (excluding most vocal music). So what does become the most important thing in this realm? It can vary, but generally speaking I feel that when you begin to venture into 'non-melodic' music you have to do a few things to compensate. 1) make the textures interesting and varied enough to be able to engage a listener (even if that listener is simply yourself). Although an argument can be made for how varied a texture must be (as minimalists have shown). 2) use subtle ways to make the music dynamic, or dramatic or some other adjective that allows the moment to progress into the next moment with intent. Now I do feel this is entirely possible (improvisers do it constantly, but I will get into that momentarily). So then is melody really necessary as Schoenberg says, and are these elevations "countered by a depression" really what it takes to make a 'good' melody (or a good composition for that matter)? That is of course mostly a subjective question and has many answers. I have heard composers who cannot do anything without a long romantic melody to start with, I do not have this issue, in fact I have a hard time dealing with long romantic melodies, I prefer shorter motives that are easily tossed around like a juggling clown at the circus throwing them every which way.

So let's get into another world all together, namely improvisation, specifically free improvisation. Now I am a relative new comer to this genre and am admittedly not as versed in it as I would like to be and am trying to expose myself to as much of it as I possible can, so these thoughts on this subject are just coming from an observer and student of the genre as opposed to an actual performer (as I have done a little performing of this music so far). I have, however, begun to incorporate many free improvisation techniques into my concert pieces (sometimes successful, sometimes not). So... having said all of that, let's talk about melody in this context. I think in free improvisation, or something close to that, the issue with melody isn't about a line of any sort, necessarily, or about a "pleasant sequence of notes", it isn't about creating a melody, but more about being melodious. Secondary to that is the journey that the improvisor takes the listener on, or potentially can take. In a lot of ways, I merge these two into the same idea of melody. A performer can be melodious in their playing perhaps, but if they fail to take it somewhere, or me somewhere, with their playing, I feel as though the music has lost something. They don't have a complete melody (being melodious and progressive). So in this regard the melody becomes everything important about what is happening, and takes on a much larger responsibility in the piece than just pleasant collections of sounds. In not-so-free improvisation there is still a similar experience, or at least the opportunity for a similar experience, as what I have described, but on a much smaller (and often shorter), and less free, scale (as usually they are dealing with lead sheets, and playing 'off' of another melody).

So in the end I am merely suggesting that the idea of melody (and in conjunction, pleasantness) is subjective, and often even arbitrary, to being musical (or melodious). Even in more traditional realms of music melody has become something less necessary in music. In a lot of Stravinsky's music melody, although very present and even quite beautiful at times, seems, at least to me, to be a secondary component to his texture, rhythm and sometimes the pure energy (often primal energy), which is why I like his work so much. On the opposite coin, Feldman has similar effects on me, but in a freer, and more colorful way. His music, although both highly structured and free at the same time, provides little in the way of 'melody' in the dictionary sense, but takes you to places that you never thought you could go, and in a way that brings together the melodic idea of being melodious AND taking a journey (sometimes over very long periods of time). 

I could go on and on with examples of the different ways composers have used 'melody', but that would just be too much information so perhaps another time.


KRIS TINER said...

"each elevation is countered by a depression..." Arnie could be talking about melody, or the economy, or a landscape, or life in general. As revolutionary as he was in certain aspects, his concept is still coming from a very classical point of view where organic balance is supreme, music must reflect that and proceed in an orderly fashion.

I like the contrast with Feldman; a little while back I really got into his idea of art having nothing to do with life... like the inside and outside of a glove, similar in shape but really not the same. This kind of thinking opens our idea of art to enable possibilities we don't find in the natural world, and I guess by implication such an art opens up our idea of what life is/can be as well.

Keep up the blogging... this is good stuff...

James Sproul said...

That is an issue I have always had with Schoenberg. He claimed to be disassociating himself from tonality but in lieu of that his rigidity to structure became overwhelmingly oppressive, probably more so than say beethoven or even mozart, who tweaked the traditional forms when they so desired. Of course they weren't prescribed forms at the time and so it was probably easier then since they didn't call it "Sonata Allegro" form or what have you (which begs a question I have been asking for a long time, WHY HAVE FORMS?!). So with Arnie he only partially rebelled, but in only attacking a part of the establishment the other part took over completely. And really, let's face it, 12-tone music is just as rigid, if not more so, than traditional tonality ever was (or is).

On the feldman stuff, I really like the glove idea, I hadn't ever heard that before. I am just starting to figure the philosophical side of his music. It seems to make sense, but does it effect the outside of the glove if you live the inside of the glove, or vice versa? I like the idea of life and art running a parallel existence, not one dependent on the other, or one more important or more powerful then the other, perhaps it is even a semeiotic relationship, one cannot exist without the other. That might be a topic for another time.

Thanks for reading, I hope it made sense. I hope to have more up soon.