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The very ontology of song

Decomposing music separates it into three basic components: rhythm, harmony and melody. Rhythm can live by itself. It inhabits the time domain. Harmony can also live by itself. It inhabits the frequency domain. Melody is a glue that holds harmony and rhythm together. Ed Driscoll at Insta-Pundit cited David Solway’s The Mystery of Melody to bring this to mind. Solway gets into the problems in defining melody and how he sees its use in popular music as a reflection of culture.

The issue is how we hear melody as a unique, modular configuration of sounds which are tangible and yet incorporeal, as if inhabiting an ethereal region between the neural and the spectral and eliciting a vast range of sympathetic response.

Here I’m preoccupied with something no less or even more fundamental, cryptic, occult, and maybe unfathomable; namely, with the enigma of melody, that “something” which cannot be mastered.

To start with, there is plainly no way of knowing how melody originated; here we must rely on pure, unverifiable speculation.

Equally mysterious is the process of “inventing” or, better, “discovering” the elusive strains of a melody, guitar on one’s lap, pen and notepad on the table, gaze focused on the far distance.

By “melody,” I intend something other than “music”—which is a composite phenomenon consisting of combinations of tones vocal and instrumental, including rhythm, melody and harmony

Melody may have its origin in human nature or in the realm of spirit, but, as we’ve noted, it is inflected differently in different cultures. Tonal systems vary dramatically; yet, though all these systems will qualify as music, not all can be described as melodic.

I am by no means suggesting that other musical traditions are not valid and authoritative and beautiful in themselves, but I am proposing that melody per se, in its richest and most memorable form, was detected—and perfected—by the Western sensibility.

All this discussion notwithstanding, I still can’t say what melody is. I do know that melody is something that can be hummed, and that I can’t hum plainchant or rap or Ravi Shankar. Hummability is the basic litmus test of melody.

A melody is something that can get trapped in your head and take some effort to get it out of your thinking. An insurance company has used this concept in their advertising to try to stick their jingle in your head. That is a characteristic of a good melody. It is so easily remembered that it can be difficult to shove it into the background of your mind.

Solway provides an interesting take. Melody is an indicator of Western Culture that is visible (audible?) and mysterious. The question that brings to my mind is whether any other culture has studied music and played with music from a logical and rational basis, even a mathematical basis, like Western Culture has. The Baroque composers illustrate this. ‘FakeBooks’ illustrate this with their massive collections of melodies with their bare hints of rhythm and harmony. As an example, I arranged the happy birthday song in close four part harmony for a studio band once according to basic rules of musicology. It might have been interesting to hear the result but the effort was dismissed on the grounds that a baroque approach by a jazz band to a simple tune just wasn’t what the market was after to celebrate some party goer’s birthday.

Melody as Solway is discussing is indeed a critical indicator of culture. His discussion is one that influences how one listens. That is one way to learn.