What is a melody? And how has it developed through history?
It may be one of music’s fundamental properties, but the art of penning a memorable melody has long proved a notoriously elusive one. Stephen Johnson reveals the story – and the secrets – behind the humble tune
For Haydn it was ‘the melody’ that was ‘the charm of music, and that which is most difficult to produce’. For Mozart, melody was ‘the very essence of music. When I think of a good melodist I think of a fine race-horse. A contrapuntist is only a post-horse.’
As he edged closer to atonal serialism, Stravinsky insisted that ‘what survives every change of system is melody.’ More poignantly, arch-modernist Schoenberg confessed that ‘there is nothing I long for more intensely than to be taken for a better kind of Tchaikovsky. People should know my tunes and whistle them.’
What is a melody?
Perhaps the most recognisable element that makes up music, a melody is a distinctive series of notes played in a fixed sequence.
Melodies are typically simple to remember and reproduce. For example, 'Happy Birthday', 'God Save the King' and 'Frère Jacques' all have instantly recognisable melodies (or tunes) that are also easy to hum along to.
Almost certainly, readers will have firm feelings as to what constitutes ‘melodious’ and ‘unmelodious’ music, and indeed what a good melody or ‘tune’ sounds like – and it’s safe to say that in most cases it’s likely to be closer to Tchaikovsky than Schoenberg. But if I were to ask you to define ‘Melody’, or to say what constitutes a ‘good’ melody… It seems this is another of those cases where we know what it is when we hear it, but saying exactly what it is we’ve just heard is another matter.
Let’s pause for a moment, however. One thing may have already struck readers raised in non-Western cultures: all those composers quoted above clearly see ‘melody’ (or, in Schoenberg’s case, ‘tune’) as a distinct element within the larger framework of ‘music’.
In fact, such a distinction does seem to be a relatively local phenomenon – in time as well as place. Go back to the literature of Ancient Greece, routinely described as ‘the cradle of Western civilisation’, and the root words ‘melodia’ and ‘melos’ are normally used to signify ‘singing’ and ‘song’, in ways that often suggest they are interchangeable with what we would now call ‘music’ in general.
So if the iTunes use of the word ‘song’ to describe any kind of musical work – from Schubert’s The Trout to a whole act of Wagner’s Parsifal – rouses you to fury, you could try comforting yourself with the thought that, consciously or not, iTunes is merely restoring the term to classical usage.
Thirty years ago, I remember being captivated by the singing of a young Turkish muezzin, his languorous chant phrases drifting out over the sea from the mosque in what was then a tiny fishing village. Lovely as it was, one felt that it could have stopped or started at the beginning or end of any its phrases – the length of which were probably determined as much by the singer’s lung capacity as by any purer aesthetic considerations. No criticism intended: that very timelessness was essential to the mesmerising beauty of it all.
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When did melodies first start appearing?
Something similar can be sensed in the earliest recorded music of Western Europe, Roman Catholic plainchant, where rhythm, phrase length and tonal rise-and-fall typically follow natural speech patterns of the sung text. But in some cases, something closer to what most of us would call ‘a melody’ is starting to emerge.
Take the famous Advent hymn Veni, veni, Emmanuel (‘O come, o come, Emmanuel’). It begins with four phrases based on a virtually identical rhythmic pattern (number of notes and stress-patterns), the last of which culminates in a recapitulation of the ending of the first phrase. The two very short (two-note) phrases on ‘Veni, veni’, provide a climax, then the much longer final phrase begins with the same motif that ended the first and fourth phrases – another recapitulation.
So we have symmetry, formal balance, and development: an element of rhythmic repetition combined with a sense of the sung line going on a journey, ending with an elegant closure as the final phrase returns to what Western listeners today would hear as the ‘tonic’ or home note – even if the term was unknown to medieval theorists.
No wonder Veni, veni, Emmanuel has survived so triumphantly as a modern hymn. Here we have the classic ‘hymn tune’: it exists as a satisfying self-contained unit, repeatable – with minor adjustments – to different words (Vaughan Williams’s English Hymnal gives five verses), and strongly memorable.
We can delight in its structure, and at the same time be caught up in its expressive rise and fall. For Haydn, Mozart, Stravinsky and Schoenberg (and indeed for Tchaikovsky) this would surely count as ‘a melody’ – in Mozart’s words, a ‘fine race-horse’.
There’s one striking feature of Veni, veni, Emmanuel that marks it out from most other plainchants right at the start. Generally speaking, plainchant moves in narrow intervals – seconds or thirds – and whole phrases usually rise and fall within the interval of the fourth: in other words, wide leaps are rare.
But Veni, veni, Emmanuel begins with a bold stride upwards: two thirds, spelling out a minor triad. In other words, the tune suggests its own harmony (the chord an organist would put under the vocal line) at its very outset. The change of note on ‘E-man…’ creates a dissonance with that implied harmony, one which isn’t resolved until the final syllable of the word, ‘el’ – a musical coming home, or ‘closure’.
That’s one reason why, when many Victorian or 20th-century chant harmonisations sound limp and inorganic, Veni, veni adapts as a modern hymn so successfully: the melody cries out for full supporting four-part harmonies. And those harmonies move: like the melody they go on a journey, away from home and back again. We have what appear to be two distinctly Western European features…
First, we have a melodic and harmonic pattern that describes a journey, a trajectory, away from a firm bass and back to it. Contrast this with, say, a classical Indian Raga. Raga is a highly sophisticated musical form, especially when it comes to rhythm (where Western classical music can seem primitive in comparison), but the typical ‘harmonisation’ is a sustained drone, a deep sustained bass note that never changes, however intricate or florid the melodic line it supports.
It remains fundamentally secure, existentially ‘grounded’ in the here and now – or even in the eternal. In contrast, Veni, veni, Emmanuel is restless, searching – that sense of grounding is temporarily suspended – which makes the return at the end a profoundly satisfying emotional event. It brings ‘closure’ in both the traditional and the modern senses of that word. The immense musical and psychological process that motivates Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – that exquisitely protracted longing for resolution, with all its wrong turnings and agonising last-minute frustrations – is already prefigured in Veni, veni, Emmanuel.
What's the difference between melody and harmony?
Secondly, it is clear that in Veni, veni we can talking about ‘melody’ and ‘harmony’ as two separate dimensions of a piece of music. However interconnected they may be, the treble melodic line and the harmonies underneath it sometimes gel, but they can also clash, creating dissonance, which makes that yearning for final resolution so much keener.
Western harmonic theory – in which chords are numbered according to their distance from the ‘home’ or ‘tonic’ chord – can be understood as a rationalisation of this process: in other words a chord’s function is explained in terms of where it’s coming from and where it’s going to. It is ‘goal-directed’. The melody expresses that journey horizontally, as a succession of single notes; the harmony extends it vertically, intensifying the melody’s inherent tensions.
If this is all beginning to sound a bit too abstract, try thinking of the famous aria ‘Casta Diva’ from Act One of Bellini’s opera Norma. The opening vocal phrase, ‘Ca-sta Di-va’ stretches out the sound of the first syllable of each word. ‘Ca-sta’ rises from the third note of the home chord to the fifth – both notes being part of the home triad, so no sense of dissonance when you sing them unaccompanied.
But ‘Di-va’ begins on the second note of the scale: mildly dissonant when heard against the tonic. If you hear the vocal line alone, it sounds as though the music doesn’t come back to base until the final ‘va’ of ‘Di-va’. But the orchestral basses are ahead of the singer: they return to the home note immediately on ‘Di-’. The melody delays the return home; the harmony underneath anticipates it. Melody and harmony go in two different directions for a moment, creating a mild but telling dissonance. The psychological expression, the feeling of a human being revealing her anxiety and frailty, emerges first in that small but significant melody-harmony clash.
How has the melody developed?
The emergence of melody as a distinct, extractable element in a multi-layered musical argument accelerates in Western music with the rise of polyphony, or counterpoint. Since the Middle Ages, and the first flowering of notated music, composers have striven to create increasingly intricate musical textures.
Instead of simple melody, or even melody-plus-accompaniment, you can create music in which the conflict that arises between the different melodic strands – the ‘counterpoint’ – creates new levels of tension and resolution. Fugue is the supreme example. Fugue starts with a simple melodic idea – the ‘subject’, which may be complete in itself, ‘closed’, or open-ended.
‘He trusted in God’ from Handel’s Messiah begins with a closed fugue subject: a melody or tune that can be extracted and sung on its own. But the final ‘Amen’ fugue has a subject that doesn’t come to a satisfying close. The second voice enters before the first has resolved itself. The real resolution is suspended until the fugue’s massive chordal ending, a good five minutes later.
From this emerges the idea, central to symphonic music, of ‘theme’ (the basic melodic idea) and ‘development’. This can work in different ways, depending on whether the theme/melody is closed or open-ended. Schubert’s Great C major Symphony begins with an eight-bar melody (two horns, unaccompanied) that stands on its own, and comes to a satisfying close.
What Schubert does next is to develop it by ‘variation’: the melody is repeated (more or less), but with changing accompaniment, until the whole process becomes more fluid, the melody breaks up into shorter motifs, and the more volatile Allegro begins.
Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, however, begins with a melody (cellos) which is open-ended from the start. Throughout the first movement, the music makes repeated attempts to round off the melody satisfactorily. It is only in the long-delayed coda the melody’s tensions are finally resolved – or almost resolved. There remains a sense of something unattainable, a tragic unresolved tension – no surprise, then, that the next movement should be a funeral march. Yet the whole of this immensely complex drama can be seen to be prefigured in Veni, veni, Emmanuel, and the discovery of ‘melody’ as a distinct, musical element – reacting with the other musical parameters, yet remaining individual within a larger, complex whole.
The first movement of the Eroica presents us with a paradox. Few, I imagine, would describe it as un-melodious or tuneless, yet nowhere within its gigantic span is there a complete, closed melody or tune.
‘Themes’ or ‘motifs’ stand out, temporarily, yet before they can complete themselves the melodic quest for closure is taken up by another instrument or instruments. The opening cello tune has hardly completed five bars before the violins have seized the initiative – and so it goes on. The whole movement presents a texture in which ‘melodies’, or at least ‘melodic ideas’ stand out, but where every element can be said to be in a sense ‘melodic’, as in a Bach fugue, but in a more volatile, dramatic way. So you could argue that iTunes wouldn’t be wrong to describe this movement as a ‘song’ – so long as ‘song’ is understood to contain within it ‘songs’, closed (nearly) or open-ended. All this from Veni, veni, Emmanuel!
One final paradox: it is easier to say what makes the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony a great piece of music (‘melodia’ in the Greek sense) than to say what makes Veni, veni, Emmanuel a great melody – the unquantifiable X-factor that makes people want to take it away and sing it. One can talk about formal balance, well-placed climax, elegant rise and fall and satisfying closure, but there remains something else, precious and mysterious as human life itself. No wonder Schoenberg wanted people to sing his tunes. For a composer, can there be any deeper, more touching validation than that?
Composers, performers and philosophers on the art of melody
‘The language of tones belongs equally to all humanity, and melody is the absolute language in which the musician speaks to every heart.’
Richard Wagner (German composer; 1813-83)
‘The grand tune is the only thing in music that the great public really understands, and flexibility is what makes it live.’
(English conductor; 1879-1961)
‘Melody! The battle cry of the dilettanti!’
(German composer; 1810-56)
‘By MELODY is implied a series of sounds more fixed, and generally more lengthened, than those of common speech; arranged with grace, and, with respect to TIME, of proportional lengths, such as the mind can easily measure, and the voice express.’
Charles Burney (English writer; 1726-1814)
‘I prophesy that in music melody will triumph over all other compositional techniques: universal polyphony shall be the end product of melodic writing, the mother of harmony and bearer of the idea.’
Ferruccio Busoni (Italian composer and pianist; 1866-1924)
‘How can I compose without a melody?’
Sergei Rachmaninov (Russian pianist and
Main image © Getty Images
Stephen Johnson is a critic and writer for BBC Music Magazine, with work also published in The Independent, The Guardian and Gramophone. He is a regular contributor on BBC Radio 3, 4 and the World Service, and has presented programmes and documentaries on Bruckner, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams.