DELVING INTO MELODY
We had a lively session of the Melody Studies Fellowship Program this summer, with a new-to-me focus on the lasting qualities of great melodies. What makes some tunes inhabit our heads with unending repetition, while others slide quickly into oblivion? And can we distinguish the qualities that make for a lasting tune?
We began by asking if there were any correlation between the grammar of English prose and the grammar of melody. (We didn't get far with applying the concepts of linguistics to music!) If we limit ourselves to songs,i.e. the combination of words and music, the similarities are unmistakable. Begin with breath (which marks phrases in both), add the rhythms of speech and then the tones of voice, the moods, the characteristic gutterals or liquidity of vowels and consonants,the emotional context -- and you have all the qualities of speech duplicated in the song. The only new thing to be is the whole world of pitch. I see it as setting up a game of three-dimensional Scrabble: words and rhythms make a grid on the bottom, but pitch adds movement up into a third realm which both rests upon and transcends the other two.
What does adding the pitches do to that basic grid? IF we posit that music is the language of human emotion, then pitches intensify that communication exponentially. There is something about the movement up and down, the quality of high vs. low notes, the patterns that build in air (like bird flight), the repeating or changing sequences, that strikes at the very soul. The memorable melodic phrase is etched into the central nervous system via the ear.
That is the effect that words + rhythm + pitches can make. But it takes craft in all three dimensions to arrive at a memorable whole. The words must be exactly right, then the song rhythms will not get in the way of those patterns -- not contradict them. And the pitches must sit on top taking full advantage of the subtleties already existing, adding their own irresistible curves.
But that is still dealing with surfaces: what holds the whole construction together? There are two (at least) immutable forces which song shares with all of nature: form and energy. The form of a given musical work is determined largely by its time relationships: the basic grid. And form in any art is largely determined by repetitions: by basic patterns being discerned and repeated -- with subtle or striking or no changes. Counting measures between cadences (where the music breathes) can give a basic graph of the form of a song, movement or extended work, which can then be augmented by a similar graph of pitch relationships.
Energy is another matter. This is the motion which propels the music through the form. It doesn't show up at all in notation, but it is the principal factor in determining a memorable performance. There are basic laws of physics here: how water flows, wind blows, or apples fall from trees. Imagine yourself playing ball on the floor with a toddler. You roll the ball, the child tries to stop it. The ball will roll until its energy is used up, or is stopped by another object. Now bounce the ball gently: watch how it hits the floor with less force at each succeeding touch until it finally rolls to a stop. In other words any time a force starts something moving (and music is moving through time), it must follow inevitable laws to use up the energy generated at the beginning.
It seems to me that this is what distinguishes the great melodies -- and the great works of art, the great performances -- from the more transitory, forgettable ones. The closer the composer or re-creator of the work is to the laws of nature, the more permanent the structure will be. Does this apply also to theater, architecture, sculpture (motion through space)? Is this why a superb song is so very satisfying? Does it fulfill a longing in our souls for completion: the fulfilling of what is implied at the beginning?
And is, perhaps, group singing the joining of our voices in chorus the most real communion with nature's laws that we humans can experience? We are contributing living sound to the ongoing world around us, becoming one with the unheard vibrations of the universe. We are becoming, in losing our separate voices to the flow, most deeply ourselves.