Where’s the tune, pal?

In the book I make the following claim:

In the main stream of conventional music, a composition that is expected to have popular appeal will fail if it does not possess, somewhere during its development, an expressive melody.

Melody is the outer contour or shape that musical rhythms and harmonies present to the world. People remember and recognize tunes. They sing them as they go about their daily routine.

Music doesn’t necessarily require a melody. It’s possible to write purely for percussive instruments, including those of indeterminate pitch, or to use harmony itself as the thematic material.

The standard tunes of the thirties, forties and fifties were characterized by a deeply formal relationship between the melody and the underlying harmonies, or chord sequences. Notes of the melody could be clearly identified, harmonically, and much use was made of the higher extensions of harmony to take advantage of their expressiveness. This was also true of popular music, for a while, at least.

Eventually, songwriters began to separate melody and harmony, producing forms where an arresting background treatment was the main focus, the melody being added almost as an afterthought. The use of the pentatonic scale, for example, which is the major scale with the two most active notes (the fourth and the seventh degrees) omitted, enables a tune to fit almost anything and although this might, at first sight, imply that the artistic ‘currency’ had been devalued, there were compensatory features that restored the balance.

There are many reasons for such changes in attitude but the main motivating force must surely be the desire to avoid what becomes an over-familiar style. Having said this, we know from history that ephemeral changes will eventually see a renaissance of previous styles.

The notes of melody resemble the free movement of particles, forming a trajectory, its vertical co-ordinate defined by variations in pitch and its lateral component resulting from its projection through time. This isn’t an attempt to create a way of looking at things. We can’t help responding in this way and familiar physical forces such as inertia will play an important part in our responses. Kinetic energy, as we all know, is the energy associated with an object’s movement.

Simple forms of melodic movement, such as a sine wave, represented, musically, by a gently undulating melodic form, excite the same response from the listener that he derives from equivalent stimuli in every day experience of the physical world; calmness, low activity, a feeling of tranquillity. It’s possible to express all melodic forms in this way, each with its own effect on the listener’s auditory response.

Due to the importance of vocal music, early melodic forms were restrained with regard to their range, the suddenness with which they changed direction and the size of their melodic intervals. The standards we use to make such judgements as acceptable/unacceptable are also governed by our everyday experiences.

In an age where the family car can attain high speeds in a matter of seconds and where what goes up may never come down, our ideas will inevitably change.

Nevertheless, we maintain an inherent north/south, up/down orientation which may explain why serial music has never attracted a large following.

Melody/axis relationships

Melodic axes govern our response to the motion of the notes of a melodic line. They form a reference frame by means of which motion may be recognised and referred to. An axis may be the key axis or tonic of the prevailing tonality (few tunes remain consistently in one key due to temporary modulations), a secondary axis (see below) or it may be a dominant or other pedal.

The forms of movement may be defined as follows:

Upwards away from the axis
Downwards towards the axis
Upwards towards the axis
Downwards away from the axis

These illustrative ways of looking at melodic forms are very useful. Patterns that consistently move up and away, for example, will seem to us to be more hopeful, positive and energetic.

Secondary axes

Besides the primary, or key axis, a melody will generate other reference points. Notes acquiring a statistical superiority, due to the sum of their durations at each recurrence, will suggest other axes, each having a different effect according to its definition. Notes foreign to the key will have the most radical effect.

Notes attaining higher ‘scores’ in terms of the sum of their durations throughout the melody have a greater affect on our awareness of music and will impart their  individual character to the melody.

The book includes an analysis of melodic structure, sequences and parallel, oblique and divergent axes. There are also detailed examples of song structures and phrase formation, etc.

Melody/harmony relationships

Adding a chord sequence to a given melody and composing a melody to a given chord sequence are opposite sides of the same coin and yet, initially, all musicians approach the subject of the melodization of harmony with more confidence.

There is no single, correct solution.

The original combination of melody and harmony employed by the composer of a song arrives as a complete package, although we may wish to add altered chords, passing chords etc. in our arrangement. The resulting mood or style the composer created was appropriate to the original setting of the song and after repeated listening we become conditioned to the result, regarding it as being ‘correct’.

Entirely different harmonizations may be created for any song, resulting in totally different characteristics. What may be too extreme for a conventional song may work well in another context, for example in background music to a documentary film.

A melody is a series of notes of different pitch sounded in sequence, whereas a chord is a group of any three or more notes of different pitch sounded simultaneously. Powerful effects may be achieved by moving away from the conventional families of chords and their standard progressions and by the use of ‘unconventional’ scales, with their own diatonic* harmonies.

Non-chordal or ‘unessential’ notes

A common difficulty experienced by the beginner, either in harmonizing melodies or in voicing for instrumental sections, concerns the treatment and identification of chordal and non-chordal notes.

Notes that fall on the beat, especially a strong beat, that are accented, or are of long duration (where the melody comes to rest) will most often be chordal.

Situations sometimes arise where it is expedient to regard chordal notes as being non-chordal in order to achieve a better flow of the parts in orchestration.

(Jazz musicians tend to refer to all unessential notes as ‘passing notes’, regardless of their definition.)

The many different kinds of unessential notes are discussed in greater detail in the book.

Composing melodies

We may compose a melody first or devise a chord sequence and fit a melody to it. Expressive and unusual melodies can result from writing a chord sequence first, although both the original chord sequence and the resulting melody may need to be altered as the composition takes shape. If all this appears to be rather premeditated, it’s worth bearing in mind the fact that much of the music we admire may have started its life in a spirit of honest toil rather than a flash of inspiration.

In composition, the germ of an idea may appear out of the blue but we might need to stimulate ideas, especially in the commercial situation where there’s a deadline to meet.

There are a series of techniques we can use:

Compose a melody to a preconceived harmonic progression and then compose another one based on the same harmonies but using a predominance of upper harmonic functions: 9ths, 11ths and 13ths and their ‘altered’ forms. A marked change in expressiveness will result.

Or, choose a very simple diatonic sequence and write an expressive melody to it. This is a useful way of reminding ourselves that we do not have to use every trick in the book to arrive at an interesting result.

Another way of overcoming a fallow period is to write some interesting rhythms and use those as a source of ideas.

*The word ‘diatonic’ should nowadays be understood to mean that the melody and harmony employ notes of the particular scale being used, not merely the major and minor scales.



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