Melody isn’t old-fashioned. It’s ancient.
Melody exists in all cultures throughout history. It is only recently that western European composers of art music have attempted to abandon Melody as an essential ingredient in their music, at the cost of losing a basic tool of communication with the vast majority of the human community.
So what is Melody?
Melody can be thought of as a series of evolving, hierarchically nested patterns on a time based array (a rhythm), with points on this grid identified, differentiated, and highlighted by the application of a set (a musical scale) of correlated frequencies (pitches, or notes)…
The application of pitches to rhythmic points allows a more nuanced and complex set of patterns to be tracked and remembered by listeners. Why? Because adding a frequency to a point in time contributes an additional identifying tag, thus allowing us to more easily compare it to surrounding points in time, and to more easily remember when a similar nested point returns further in the pattern or on the next iteration of the pattern.
The result of attaching notes to a rhythmic grid is a melody.
Melodies are time-based, and usually cyclical, and hence mirror the synaptical feedback loops that our thoughts routinely form in our cerebral cortex, fired from below in the limbic system, from an emotional base plane of interactions with environmental stimuli, as well as remembered patterns, and hardwired, inherited interaction patterns. (Affective Neuroscience has been able to map, using fMRI and Meg scanners, seven so-called primary process emotions that all mammals and birds are born with.) (cf 1. Panksepp)
In order for stimuli to become meaningful for us, it needs to be able to be remembered. The process of remembering something is the process of comparing a new phenomenon with previously stored and categorized phenomena and noting similarities and differences, and in the process building up a personal lexicon of meaning, of how the world is constructed.
Each of us is building our personal version of reality, i.e. our internal library of correlated patterns, In the form of webs of sets of correlated and interactive synapses, from the moment we are born.
Because melodies are similar in many ways to the content, duration, tempo of spoken language, they are processed in similar ways and get wired together with our memories. They are like abstract shadows that connect to each individual’s specific, evolving, personal library of synaptical patterns.
We carry melodies around in our heads. We remember them, if they are well designed, without thinking about them. They sing to us as we walk down the street and as we sleep at night, they stimulate and call forward our personal emotional loops… our memories tied to emotions. They are an essential part of us. We have been singing them since long before people knew how to read or write.
Leaving them behind us on the side of the road is an unfortunate trope of contemporary academic composition practice over the past 100 years.
Of course there are things that we remember that are not based on melodies: explosions, ambient sounds of all types, non-repetitive, noise-based acoustic phenomena, echoes, reverberation etc.
But these noise based phenomena do not have the specificity of melodies.
How many different types of explosions do you carry around in your head? How many specific instances of car doors closing, wind blowing, water flowing, firecrackers exploding, thunder crashing, sirens wailing, do you remember? These are inherently generalities. They do not have the necessary ingredients of correlated information for us to differentiate them specifically. So using them as the core ingredients of a musical lexicon cannot produce anything close to the emotional strength of flowing loops of melodies that can live in our brains and bodies.
Likewise, using some aspects of Melody, for example pitches, but not attaching them to rhythmic grid, or by using sets of pitches that exceed our channel capacity for keeping track of their occurrences (anything more than seven pitches In a scale is very difficult to remember… and worldwide, in most cultures, the music utilizes five pitches), render the pitches meaningless as identifying tags, as mnemonics. In this situation the pitches become similar to clicks and rattles, scrapes. (cf 2. Miller) They lose much of their ability to add highlights to a hierarchically nested set of remembered patterns.. Melodies generated this way are meaningless in the real sense of the word. We can’t remember them. They don’t connect and wire together with our internal library of correlated patterns. They go in one ear and out the other. Like the wind.
Of course, aesthetically one could say that this is the goal, to make music that cannot be remembered. And that is a defensible goal. It just has very severe limits in terms of its use and its ability to connect.
There is a role for having music that’s like a flowing brook. But that doesn’t throw out Melody as an important tool for the Composer. Not this time or anytime.
Melody is ancient. Long live Melody.
Aka Joseph Martin Waters
May 3, 2022
- Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Miller, G. (1956) The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information The Psychological review, 1956, vol. 63, pp. 81-97