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Where have all the melodies gone?

img  Tobias

When the so called New Wave movement started in British pop music in the late 1970s, I immediately noticed the frequent brooding sound of guitars through chorus effects units and the strange haunting melodies. The combination produced a sound unlike any heard in pop music before. To me, it sounded new and exciting, and I was impressed with how such young musicians could come up with such an original sound. The melodies were often oscillations around a few notes, sung by untrained female singers, in a vibrato-less voice. Despite the odd claims to the contrary, pop music, like all music, is probably never sui generis, the roots are usually obvious. The Beatles' early big success, Love Me Do, shows the country music and blues influences very obviously, not integrated, but quite crudely juxtaposed. However good pop song writers come up with melodic forms that suit the time and can sound fresh, despite the tendency to use the pentatonic scale much of the time. However as my background is in classical music I am confused as to why melody is rare in contemporary classical music. There are going to be composers who are just not interested, as there are in rock music, but this wholesale avoidance of melodic themes is strange. The conclusion I have come to is not that classical composers have now advanced so far, they no longer need strong melodic writing - which is seen as both limiting and old fashioned; melodic writing has disappeared for two other reasons.

One reason is the difficulty of creating melodic writing that is relevant to the present time. Most of us have a clear image of what a Baroque melody may sound like, or a melodic theme from Classical or Romantic periods may sound like. Why is there not a distinctive late 20th century melodic style? The explanation, is I believe, that it would have taken exceptional skill to write melodic music that is quintessentially late 20th century. Composers, instead of facing the problem head on, have decided to ignore it altogether. There is even an unstated view that all melodies have already been written, that there is nothing new in that area. The first part of the twentieth century had numerous melodic styles, and several technical terms to describe them. There were the themes based on folk music; simple, almost chant like themes using a few notes; various melodic forms showed their provenance in the Classical or Romantic periods; even there were jazz and blues influences. However to compose a melodic work does not mean you have to recycle the melodic styles of previous periods, it does not have to be neo-Classical, neo-Romantic, or neo-Anything else. Melodic writing has its own character that is liked or disliked - it is not a case of you like melodic music or you do not. Personally I find some 19th century melodies cloying, although I find most Baroque themes attractive, even themes that some may find meandering.

For the vast majority of listeners, melodic themes and a rhythmic pulse are
prerequisites for them to appreciate music. The fact that rubato in some of Chopin's piano pieces makes the pulse almost non-existent, is not relevant because it is still detectable. Unaccompanied folk song may not have a pronounced metric pulse but it certainly has a speech rhythm that comes from the rhythm of the words. Because the speech rhythm makes sense, the resulting musical rhythm also makes sense. It is often quoted in defence of so called avant garde music, that the Rite of Spring was jeered at the first performance but is now a popular work; the reasoning being that composers are ahead of their time and eventually, the audience catches up. The first thing to point out is that Stravinsky stated that it was the choreography that turned the audience against the work. When it was performed in a concert (without the choreography, of course) a few months later it was well received. The second point is that despite the so called primitivism of the work, it is both rhythmic and melodic. This means that the Rite of Spring cannot be used to justify the often made claim that, at sometime in the future, the numerous total serial works will also be popular in the concert hall, we just have to wait for the audience to catch up. However it is the lack of melody, rather than lack pulse that interests me here, and of course, there is contemporary concert music that, although containing a strong pulse, lacks melody.

Unfortunately melodic pieces can now give the impression of being less serious than works that concentrate on thematic development, or serial structure. This is not helped by the commercial songwriters' irritating tendency to describe the distinctive part of a melody as a hook, as if the entire song is not meant to be a unity. What does not exist anymore, in most classical music though, is the sheer love of melody and pulsing rhythm. If you listen to good pop music, the Beach Boys and The Beatles for instance, a joy in melodic songs comes over. Even Bob Dylan's most acerbic, or embittered, songs are still melodic. Why has contemporary classical music lost this? As I wrote above, I think composers are stuck and rather than dealing with the problem, they evade it. Some contemporary classical music does have melodic themes, such as the repetitive works of composers such as Glass and Reich, and it is not surprising that they are among the most popular living classical composers. However this genre is distinct in itself and not representative of most contemporary concert music. We are now in the 21st century and, to many, the serial principles of the 20th century seem old fashioned. The total serialist composers were criticised by the more traditional music establishment, now they have become a sort of music establishment themselves. Now it is they and their supporters who are criticising music that does not comply with their austere, aesthetic rigour. To me though, music is part of the fashion world and classical music is every bit as fashion conscious as pop music. In the same way as international haute couture designers visit the streets and clubs in London, to inspire their own work, I believe classical composers will start doing the same. It is only a matter of time before the melodic forms of popular music inspire concert music again; and it is only a matter of time before there will be distinctive 21st century melodic works. Perhaps more importantly I also believe that classical composers will come up with distinctive melodic forms that will be new.

The second reason I believe melodic writing has all but disappeared is that number systems, abstract forms, serial techniques, and formulas can be fascinating to a composer, the result being that this often becomes the main element of the compositional process. This has even been described as a 'number fetish'. Unfortunately these techniques are not conducive to composing linear melodies, they are more suited to textural writing and harmony. Although some composers do write serial themes, these techniques are more likely to encourage the composer to jettison melody altogether. There are examples of 20th century music that show random and serial techniques can produce exceptional music, it is the claim that the ear can follow abstract formulae of such complexity that is misguided. There is no question that such techniques can stimulate creativity, the problem is they cannot be used to justify the resulting artistic work. There are inaccurate metaphors used in relation to contemporary classical music, such as 'academic research'. It is obvious academic research into new electronic music instruments and software is invaluable; it is academic research into compositional methods that is a nonsense.

The final point to make is that many composers are aware, even to the point of obsession, that they are part of a European classical music heritage and are the guardians of this heritage, the same way as art galleries are guardians of our visual art heritage. To me this is entirely unnecessary. Classical music is so much part of composers and musicians that devote their artistic endeavours to this genre that they will inevitably be true to that tradition without trying. It is not a divine truth that needs to be guarded, it is a living culture that can take care of itself. So the recent works that are a mixture of classical, medieval, new age and Celtic influences are also part of the European tradition.

By Ian Stewart 2009

Ian Stewart is a composer, arranger and musician whose compositions, frequently featuring classical saxophone, have been broadcast on radio, performed in concerts, and used in television programmes. Recent works have been influenced by late 1960’s & early 1970’s psychedelic music.Visit his homepage at:

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