Thursday, January 7, 2016

Exploring Music with No Melody, part 1

Does good music require a melody? Does the melody have to be something memorable that we can sing or whistle after having heard it? And what exactly do we mean by “melody?”

Let’s take these questions one at a time, but in reverse order:

1. What is melody?
Compare these definitions of melody:
    Oxford Dictionaries:
  1. A sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying; a tune.
  2. The aspect of musical composition concerned with the arrangement of single notes to form a satisfying sequence.
  3. The principal part in harmonized music

  5. Musical sounds in agreeable succession or arrangement.
  6. The succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm.
  7. The principal part in a harmonic composition; the air.
  8. A rhythmical succession of single tones producing a distinct musical phrase or idea.

  10. A pleasing series of musical notes that form the main part of a song or piece of music.
  11. A song or tune
  12. A sweet or agreeable succession or arrangement of sounds; tunefulness.
  13. A rhythmic succession of single tones organized as an aesthetic whole.

  14. More from
  15. A pleasing succession or arrangement of sounds.
  16. A rhythmically organized sequence of single tones so related to one another as to make up a particular phrase or idea.
  17. Structure with respect to the arrangement of single notes in succession.
  18. The leading part or the air in a composition with accompaniment.
  19. A succession of notes forming a distinctive sequence; tune.
  20. The horizontally represented aspect of the structure of a piece of music.
  21. The perception of pleasant arrangements of musical notes.
  22. A rhythmical succession of musical tones organized as a distinct phrase or sequence of phrases.
  23. Musically satisfying sequences of notes collectively
Well, the range of definitions is impressive! The closest thing to a common denominator in these definitions is that melody is a sequence (or succession, or series) of notes (tones, sounds). [The word sequence in these definitions simply means succession, not a musical sequence.]

I find it both surprising and odd that so many definitions include words like satisfying, agreeable, pleasant, and pleasing; it seems problematic to attach an emotional response to the definition of melody. 
If a melody is musically dissatisfying to someone, does that mean it's not a melody? Melody can be described in many ways — satisfying or dissatisfying, good or bad, aimless or purposeful, pointillistic or linear, chaotic or predictable, sparse or dense — without changing the fact that it is still a melody. One person's "bad" or "dissatisfying" melody may be another's "good" or "satisfying melody, but in either case, it's a melody. Subjective terms do not belong in the definition. 
My feeling is that a sequence of notes is a somewhat functional, albeit imperfect, definition of melody, because it allows debate on the relative merits or satisfaction-level of melodies without invalidating a melody or entire composition just because we don’t find it pleasant or satisfying. 
The problem, unfortunately, is that this definition — a sequence of notes — doesn't really tell us very much; is any sequence of notes a melody? This is debatable of course, but I suspect most people would say, for example, that a succession of pitches randomly selected from the 88 notes of a piano, with random durations, spaces in between, and dynamics, is not the kind of musical line we associate with the word melody. But perhaps for some people it is.
2. Does a melody have to be memorable?
Again, a problem with this question is that “memorable” is a subjective term; what I find memorable, you might not, and vice versa. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, is memorable. The melody to Scriabin, Prelude, op. 74 no. 2  (below), although very beautiful, perhaps less so (this is very short – only slightly longer than a minute – so, if you don't know this lovely miniature, please have a listen):

There are types of music, such as pop or musical theatre, in which it is particularly important that the melody be memorable.  More generally, it seems likely that most compositions that we enjoy have memorable melodies, but, at least in classical music, the entire piece is not likely to be equally memorable.
Symphonic development sections, for example, don’t need to be memorable; they just need to take the listener for a ride (sometime a wild one) to places where fragments of melodies sound familiar, but are used in unfamiliar contexts and often unstable harmonies.  Most people probably find it challenging to leave a symphonic performance humming the development section, but we don't hold that against a great symphony. For music geeks like me, classical development sections can be enthralling to hear and study, even if more memorable (and more complete) melodies come in the exposition (first section).   
3. Does good music require a melody, memorable or otherwise? 
Well, here we have to backtrack a little; if the question is, does good music require a "sequence of notes," then it seems that the answer is usually yes: Good music typically has notes, and they are typically in a sequence of some sort.  (Well thanks, Captain Obvious, you may be thinking…)
But even here there are exceptions, such as John Cage’s 4’ 33” (Spoiler alert: It has no notes), and non-pitched electronic music, particularly musique concrète
So let’s revise this question, because doing so will get us closer to the objectives of the composition project at the end of part 2 of these Exploring Music with No Melody blogs:

3®. Does good music require a strong, singable “tune” in the foreground? 

— See part 2 for the continuation of this discussion, with lots of music videos.


Flutiano said...

It is interesting to think about the definition of melody; it is one of those things which seems like a simple concept until you try to define it. If all melody is is a sequence of notes, then what would we be writing for our assignment? Non-pitched music on a piano and one other instrument? Sounds challenging, and with three pieces made with different styles, perhaps impossible. Yet - how do you improve the definition? As you indicate, subjective aspects like enjoy-ability probably should not be included in an objective definition of melody.

What do melodies have in common with each other other than a sequence of notes? Who gets to decide what is a melody? I think we can all agree that 4' 33" doesn't, but who gets to decide which sequences of notes constitute melodies, or not? What is a sequence of notes that is not a melody?

It's amazing how complicated something that you take for granted can become when you spend some time thinking about it.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

Melody is indeed a slippery thing to define, and thus it may be more useful to talk about the degree to which a piece is “melodic” rather than whether or not there is a melody. Though some music is clearly melodic and other music clearly not (as evidenced by examples in class and on this blog), there are significant grey areas where the musical interest moves away from a singable theme to harmonic, rhythmic, colouristic, or other aspects of a piece, but does not abandon “melody” entirely. Many people apply the “I know it when I see it” test to melody, resulting in different conclusions from all parties when it comes to pieces in this grey area; however, I would expect that most individuals would be able to come to an agreement on the relative degrees to which given pieces of music are melodic. Regardless, it is clear that music is produced and enjoyed at all points on the spectrum. Looking at the far end, the non-melodic end, we realize that if “good” music had an inherent need for melody, then drum lines, much dance music, and many well-loved classical compositions would have to be labelled as antithetical to good music. And yet, many such pieces not only exist but are quite popular, both in art music and popular music. These pieces may lack a hummable tune, but maintain the interest of listeners through other means. While the vast majority of music the average person consumes is very melodic, non-melodic pieces continued to be created and well-received, while not every melodic piece is universally praised. It appears therefore that the quality of music is largely dependent on factors outside how melodic it is.

Josh McCarthy said...

A pretty tune that sticks with the listener is what I always what I considered melody, until I started reading some of this blog, and how we discussed it in class. Melody to me needed to be consonant and pleasant because that's what I always preferred hearing. My horizons have been broadened and now I can see a melody for what it rue is meant to be, simply a piles of notes strung together in the composer's chosen order. Like you said in your blog, "One person's 'bad' or 'dissatisfying' melody may be another's 'good' or 'satisfying melody,'" and as a composer I can respect that idea now, and that sometimes a melody or music in general won't be what I particularly like, but it is someone's favourite style of music. A good melody is a powerful tool, and when used right it will both impress and shock people, either for good or bad.

Josh Chancey said...

I also agree that melody is a hard concept to define. While terms like "Memorable" and "Pleasing" complicate the definition further, I find the strongest issue with solidifying the concept of melody is the role it plays in a composition. Often times, "the most important part of a harmonized line" as one definition states, is not the "written melody" for the "melody instrument". In other words, the melodic line does not appear in the soprano, in a singable range as with most concepts of melody. For example, in Miles Davis's So What, the most memorable line is not the "melody" (a mere two notes), but in the bass line. Other definitions such as "A sweet or agreeable succession or arrangement of sounds; tunefulness" are further complicated because I interpret "agreeable" to mean consonant. In my opinion, some of my favourite melodic lines result from carefully crafted and purposeful tensions in a line. While that tension is eventually resolved to a consonance, the creation of that tension is what holds my interest in the tune. There are simply too many subjective terms in these simple definitions for a complicated topic matter.

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

The sound of music is relative. Who is it to say that this sounds agreeable, pleasant or satisfying? If you listen to music from different cultures that have different tuning systems, rhythmic styles and vocal/instrumental delivery and technics, to our ears it may sound wrong or unnatural to follow. We may not detect a melody for that matter. I don’t think good music requires a melody. There is a lot more to music than the focus of that element. We can create moods and atmospheric textures with no melody and still create an impression. If you can make an impression it makes the music memorable and something to talk about. Like your example of John Cage 4’33, there are no notes but it made an impression that many people talk about to this day.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I don't believe that a piece of music has to have a 'memorable' or 'pleasing' line that qualifies as a melody. The definition of music has expanded beyond conventional systems, and I believe the definition of a melody has as well. There are any number of elements that could possibly constitute a piece of music, and likewise, a melody can consist of any number of elements. I also believe that music doesn't necessarily need to have a 'melody' per se. As the parameters of what qualifies music expands, I believe we have to expand our conception of what qualifies a melody.

Kristin Wills said...

I think melody is something that is important for most music, but it is not always necessary. I have heard a lot of good music without any melody, and I found that it was mostly written to create an atmosphere and to accompany something, such as a film. Melodic music is usually more memorable, but listening to ambient music can be just as rewarding if it is well written. Also, there is a lot of melody-based music that does not have a "nice" melody. Sometimes melodies can be unpleasant to listen to but still very interesting and beautiful in a way.

Jack Etchegary said...

It's strange to read the many different definitions of melody found on these dictionary websites. I agree with you that it is very strange that many of these definitions contain emotional words and associate feelings with the very definition of melody. I do suppose however, as you do mention later in the post, that in pop and musical theatre, this concept of pleasing, memorable melody is important, so I do suppose that the definition rings true in some ways. I just recently was working on a piece that has no melody, as you know, and the ways that I chose to eliminate melody from the work would perhaps not be valid under some of the definitions you mentioned in your post. If we are to say that any succession of any notes is a melody, then the path to achieve a piece of music with no melodic content whatsoever becomes challenging. If we take pointillism for example, the successions of notes that are used are typically far from hummable or memorable, yet the succession of notes still provides the basis of a melodic idea and would most definitely fit some definitions. On another note, I find myself thinking about percussion music - specifically works written for non-pitched instruments, like snare drum solos, or multi-percussion solos. Here, many definitions of melody would not be valid in describing the characteristics of the notes in these pieces, but again, there is still a succession of notes occurring (even more so with multi-perc, as there are several timbral effects that can create melody). For me, a melody is something that can't really be a definite thing. There are so many examples of where attempted definitions fail to cover all the grounds of melody as a whole that it is a bit unnecessary to try to characterize it as a single entity.