By David James
When composing melodies, at least in this writer’s experience, it is easy to come up with something average. But to craft something good takes a great deal of time and trial and error if one is to choose exactly the right notes and shape. There is no short cut, nor will any amount of erudition help. It is as if a code is being unlocked and the tool for doing it is the composer’s judgement. But we find that that it is the melody that lingers on.
It would be different for geniuses, of course. One imagines Mozart found his perfect melodies relatively easy to craft. For instance the halting, sublimely simple theme in the slow movement of his 21st piano concerto (the Elvira Madigan theme) sounds like it took no great effort on his part. Yet there are few melodies as memorable or as minimal.
Sometimes there is no effort at all. Paul McCartney has insisted that his song Yesterday came to him in a dream. He assumed he had just remembered it from somewhere else. But after asking around to see if people recognised it, he eventually came to realise that it was original and it went on to become one of the Beatles’ most popular songs.
The requirement to choose just the right notes for a melody depends to a significant extent on the genre. It matters little in atonal music because any sense of “rightness” is bound up with when and how the melody resolves harmonically. That is not an issue with atonal music because it does not use diatonic harmony.
Likewise in Indian or Arabian melodies the dominance of modes (complex scales that don’t necessarily have a central, resolving point to which all the other notes are related) tends to open up multiple possibilities, meaning that there is little sense that there is only one best option to choose.
I believe there are also melodies in Chinese opera, and some are no doubt considered better than others, however, I couldn’t possibly comment.
At the other end of the spectrum, in Baroque music, the rules of harmony are so strict it means that finding the right notes is not so much how you find your way back to the resolution, but how far you adventure away from it in the first place.
Bach, the greatest musical adventurer of all, arguably wrote fewer great melodies, at least to the modern ear, than the less innovative Handel because when Bach returns his melodies to balance and resolution it sounds like a process that is to some extent rule bound.
Handel, by contrast, created melodies in which there was exquisite balance between both the tension and resolution. There is also glorious shape in his melodies, especially in works such as the Water Music Suite and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Even today when recalling these pieces, it’s the melody that lingers on.
In folk music the rules of structure and harmony tend to dominate, as in, say Irish folk music, which tends towards the predictable, or in blues, which produces many great songs but not many standout melodies. It means that, as with Bach, the first part of the melody tends to be more important than its resolution.
In the English folk song, Greensleeves, for instance, it is the sequences in the first part of the melody that make it stand out, not the way it resolves, which sounds more like it is just completing the formula.
Then there are nursery rhymes, which are rarely taken seriously by musicologists. Yet even something apparently as trite as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star has a perfection about it that is extremely difficult to achieve. One doubts that modern composers could produce something so elegant with so few musical materials; they impress with complexity but rarely with simplicity.
Even a song like Somewhere Over the Rainbow is peerless for its balance and simplicity, a great melodic achievement.
Melody is the most subtle and elusive part of all music and it is especially unwise to attempt to be formulaic. There is no prescription, just praxis. Some melodists are good or great; most tend towards the obvious or the ordinary.
In contemporary popular music the melodies are mostly ordinary; there is rarely any sense the writer is skilled at producing just the right notes and just the right shapes. That is why classic songs from previous eras last. Because in the end it is melody that listeners most notice, and the melody that lingers on.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.