Sunday, January 10, 2016

Exploring Music with No Melody, part 2

In part one, we compared a ridiculous number (20) of definitions of the word, melody, and came up with our own, functional-but-flawed definition (a sequence of notes), eventually arriving at the question at the core of these music with no melody blog posts:
 Does good music require a strong, singable “tune” in the foreground? 
In part two, we conclude this discussion, look at / listen to a variety of works in which a foreground melody is not a primary organizing principle, and end up with a description of a composition project for my students.

Discussion of the above question:
"In the foreground," means that the "tune" is front and centre, the musical aspect that most prominently gives the composition its identity. When we think of Yesterday (the Beatles song), Jingle Bells, Mendelssohn's Wedding March,  or Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, we may think of many facets of these pieces (instrumentation, rhythms, our emotional responses to them, etc.), but it is likely that the aspect of these compositions that first pops into our head is the tune. 
This turns out to be a fairly easy question to answer, because there are, perhaps surprisingly, numerous good compositions whose most prominent and memorable aspect is probably not the “tune."
Here are some of them; the first two have audio clips beneath the music examples, the remaining ones are all videos, some with scrolling scores:
J. S. Bach, Prelude 1, WTC I, BWV 846

L. van Beethoven, Symphony 7, II: Alegretto (pno. reduction)

Schoenberg — Farben (#3 of Five Pieces for Orchestra, also called "Summer Morning by a Lake: Chord Colours"; 1908)

A. Webern, Variations for Piano, op. 27, II

Glenn Gould's performance of the Webern is above; if you haven't heard it, I strongly recommend having a listen (and watch the hand crossings in the second movement, which starts at 1:31). It's very short, as is the case in all Webern music.

Next is another short one, Ligeti, Etudes for Piano, Book 1, No 2:

Howard Bashaw, Prelude no. 5, "Dita Correnti" is next; again, watch the pianist's hands:

Next is Messiaen, Petites esquisses d'oiseaux:

And after Messiaen, it makes sense to listen to some Toru Takemitsu music. This is Riverrun:

Morton Feldman, Piano And String Quartet (it's an hour and 20 minutes long, so get comfortable!):

Philip Glass's music very much belongs in this discussion; this is Glassworks:

These are just some of many compositions that don't have a melody, or "tune," as most people understand those words, as a prominent, foreground feature. There's also an entire genre of music in which this is also the case, which is called Spectralism, music that uses sound spectra or tone colour as a fundamental organizing principle. I wrote a blog about spectral music music a few years ago; click here if you wish to learn more about it. That post also has more music videos by other composers to check out.

In spectralism, as well as in all the above examples, composers found ways of drawing our attention to musical aspects other than melody. These aspects included continuous motion broken chords (Bach, Ligeti), repetitive arpeggios (Feldman), a focus on musical colour and/or sound masses (Schoenberg, Messiaen, Takemitsu, spectralism, Feldman), pointillism (Webern), arpeggios with interjected bird call emulations (Messiaen), fast, angular writing with repeated motives (Bashaw), static minimalism (Schoenberg, Feldman),  and pulsed minimalism with oscillating figures (Glass).

Composition project:  Write three short pieces for piano and one other instrument, in which melody is not a predominant feature. Each piece should approach this challenge in a different way. You can borrow techniques from any of the pieces cited above, or cited in my Spectralism blog, or from any other pieces, or you can come up with your own original solutions to this challenge. The harmonic language cannot be traditional tonality, but this does not exclude the use of traditional sonorities.


Robert Humber said...

I think it is actually pretty important as a musician to familiarize yourself with music without melody. From my experience, music that is lacking in tunefulness is often bubbling with creativity and interest in other areas like rhythm, colour, etc. Personally, after learning about pieces based on colour and harmony by composers like Messiaen, Takemitsu, Dutilleux, Rautavaara and the symphonies of Silvestrov, I went through a long spell of wanting to hear nothing but rich, nonmelodic music.

I think it's interesting that many definitions of 'melody' explain it as a collection of notes/pitches that are pleasing to the ear. Obviously, 'pleasing' is such a vague word. For whatever reason, I've never liked the A minor piano concerto by Grieg. The collection of notes doesn't please my ear. Ligeti's 'Atmospheres' is a collection of notes that pleases my ears (except for the part where two piccolos loudly play a minor second at the top of their range, I don't love that). With that definition, couldn't I argue that in my opinion Ligeti is more melodic than Grieg?!

Of course, I don't actually think this because, well, listen to it. It's obvious Grieg is more melodious, it just... is. It fascinates me that something so difficult to define just 'is'. There's many examples in popular music of a melody being harmonized, either higher or lower. We always seem to know which voice is the melody and which is harmony, even though the melody is not always the highest voice. I don't know how we are able to distinguish this and perhaps there is some scientific explanation but it really amazes me regardless. Music in general is such an abstract concept when you think about it, yet it feels so natural, we just GET it.

Here are some examples of music I like without a melody, at least in the traditional sense.

An absolutely beautiful piece by Rautavaara. This movement's main attraction is the rich orchestration and the chords which ooze into each other like shifting colours.

Lux Aeterna by Ligeti is a beautiful example of micropolyphony, a technique he used a lot.

This one I'm not sure about. Some could argue that 'Fratres', a minimalist piece by the brilliant Arvo Part, has a melody. I would argue that no part really functions like a traditional melody and each section of piece just outlines the repeated chord progression in different ways. Regardless of whether you think it is melodic or not, listen to it. It's great.

Thank you.

Flutiano said...

Exploring the idea of writing pieces without melody has brought up a couple of different concepts for me: 1) the brain is a pattern-seeking organism, and 2) the definition of melody is fluid.

The more I listen to these pieces, and those from your spectralism blog post, the more I start hearing fragments of melody. Not long, singable tunes but sequences of notes that have a sort of undefinable melodic quality. If Riverrun by Takemitsu had been the first piece of this type that I listened to today, would I have thought that there were beautiful melodic moments, or would I have just thought it was a piece without melody? After about an hour and a half of listening to this type of music, Riverrun is sounding quite melodic. Is that because a melody is a type of pattern, and my brain is looking for sequences of notes it can grasp on to and hear as melody?

Maybe a possible definition of melody would be "a sequence of notes which form a unit recognizable to the listener within his or her experience of music and melody," although that is even clumsier a definition than "an enjoyable sequence of notes." I'm tempted to propose that there isn't one single definition of melody that everybody could accept, because we all have our own concepts of what melody is, and moreover what we think of as melody can change as we are exposed to different soundscapes.

Robert Humber said...

I thought it was interesting to read my own comment on this post from last year. I used Rautavaara (RIP) and Silvestrov as examples of music without melody??? I look back in confusion, as these two neo-romantic composers not only use melody, their work (particularly Silvestrov) begins and ends with the melody. Few contemporary composers stress long, soaring melodies like Silvestrov and it was interesting to see that I did not recognize this just a year ago... It just goes to show that you can "practice" having an analytical ear.

The "no-melody" project is a great exercise, but I don't think it's a good idea to just dive in with no prior knowledge of the literature. I would advise listening to every piece you listed... (all awesome examples of totally engaging music without melody). I might add a few that I have been into lately which solve the problem of no melody in different ways:

David Lang - Child (rhythmic energy and unpredictability with a somewhat diatonic pitch collection... overall very clear and precise music)

Giacinto Scelsi - Chukrum (music that revolves around a single pitch, orchestrated ways that build intensity... to me or gets 'hotter' and 'colder')

Steve Reich - anything (pulsing rhythms, 'phasing' effects, close canonic writing, slowly shifting meters and harmonies)

It's a good idea to really think about what main element will replace the importance of melody, and start from there. It can be harmony, rhythm, texture, even concept (if you are a brilliant thinker like John Cage or Iannis Xenakis). You may be surprised by how good and/or engaging and/or cool your piece starts sounding!

Great post Dr. Ross.

Jack Etchegary said...

In many of the examples listed in this post, I believe that there are many questions (some questions which apply to all, some to only a few, or even just a singular example) that can help us in determining whether or not a particular piece of music features a melody component in some way. For me, the first question is: is a melody merely just a sequence of notes, as discussed in the 1st post regarding this topic? If so, then yes, all examples listed in this post feature a melody, as they all contain sequences of notes. But, perhaps getting more specific will result in the elimination of some examples in the melody roster. My next question is: does the sequence of notes that makes a melody have to be singable or hummable by the listener to constitute as melody? If so, then perhaps the Bach, Beethoven and Glass examples would prove to have melodic content, whereas the Schoenberg, Webern, Ligeti, Bashaw, Messaien, Takemitsu, and Feldman would fail to do so. Getting more specific yet again, my final question is: does the differentiation between melody and harmony need to be apparent to the listener to actually establish a melodic idea? In this case, perhaps none of the examples feature a melody of some sort, as the differences between ideas that could be heard as melody and/or harmony are for the most part very vague in these musical examples.

I recently completed a composition project using these ideas back in January and February of this year. While I do not know if I was entirely successful in creating three pieces that did not contain a melody, I asked myself questions similar to the ones I have outlined here when I was writing, which I found helpful in my creative process.