Appreciating Music: Melody

Thoughts on evaluation
Jun 7, 2017

One of the organizing factors in all of music is the melody. If music is sound organized in time (or rather the taking of dominion over sound and time), then melody is one way to help interpret or understand a piece of music. In her book The Anatomy of Melody: Exploring the Single Line of Song, Alice Parker states an apology for melody in her forward:

We are living in a culture that doesn’t value melody, one that seems to have lost touch with this primal means of expression. We are surrounded by sounds so insistent, so varied in intent and clangor, that we’ve forgotten how to listen to a single line. In fact, we don’t really listen to each other speak anymore because there are too many distractions luring us away from the unadorned human voice. We’ve lost the basic, easy connection between speech and song that makes speech musical and song communicative. We’re perilously close to losing silence: in the electronic world, silence means disconnection.

She also argues for participating in music no matter at what skill level. From experience, there is a palpable difference between listening to a piece, studying a piece, and actually performing it.

In his book What to Listen For in Music, American composer Aaron Copland suggests what constitutes a good melody:

A beautiful melody, like a piece of music in its entirety, should be of satisfying proportions. It must give us a sense of completion and of inevitability. To do that, the melodic line will generally be long and flowing, with low and high points of interest and a climatic moment usually near the end.

While one can argue with the necessity of the length and flow of a melody, the concepts of completion and inevitability are consistent with the ideas of sound organized in time.

In an essay for the book Teaching Beauty: A Vision for Music & Art in Christian Education, I wrote about the idea of “objective appropriateness”: 

Because of the strong connection between the objective appropriateness of balance, order, unity and proportion inherent in God’s creation, a good melody should naturally resonate with careful listeners despite their lack of formal training. Music appreciation has the dual role of guiding students in the ability to sense the “rightness” of the object as well as developing the taste of the listener and exposing them to those things that are inherently beautiful, good, and true.

Because of the order of the cosmos, balance and order resonate in the human spirit more clearly than does chaos. For instance, a perfectly drawn circle has a beauty and unity that is lacking if the line gets squiggly or flattens the arc. This is also why listeners are not drawn towards atonal or chance (aleatoric) music—there is no sense of order, development or completion. Conversely, despite the beauty of the cosmos, the Fall affects the desire to seek out those things that are true, lovely and of good report. Consequently, it is easier to listen to music that requires no thought, that provokes immediate emotional reactions, and makes no disciplined demands. This is why we must continually listen to objectively good examples—whether that means music, literature, geometric proofs —and provide the means to comprehend truth and beauty in the framework of a Christian worldview.

So how should we evaluate melody based on its appropriateness or its fulfillment of “balance, order, unity, and proportion”? Here are some sample guidelines:

  • What is the shape of the melody? 
  • When and where does it rise and fall? 
  • If you were to draw the contours of the melodic line, what would it look like?
  • Is there a sense of completion and how is that accomplished—repetition, variation, or inevitability?
  • Is there a sense of proportion and balance? Is it too long or too short?
  • Does it develop the inherent potential of the musical ideas?
  • Is it major, minor, modal, or other?
  • If there are lyrics, does the music reflect the words and their natural rhythm? Do the lyrics match the music in tone and melodic arc? 

Starting with melody provides a key to unlock the rest of a musical work whether it be counterpoint, harmony, formal structure, or large scale works. If it is a work of counterpoint, the melody serves as a dialogue between multiple voices. With regards to harmony, the melody serves to either create resultant harmony between horizontal lines or as the primary voice that is supported by chords. With formal structure, the melody provides the roadmap to the repetitions, variations, and development that form the concerto, rondo, symphony, suite, sonata-allegro, etc.

For example, thinking through the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony provides the melodic motif that spins out the following four movements and the next 40 minutes of music. When it comes to plainsong chant, attending to the rise and fall of the melody as well as the melismatic passages (multiple notes to a single syllable) emphasizes the meaning and theological content of the text. Irish tunes often repeat the final note as a form of completeness. Tchaikovsky’s melody are beautiful but sometimes seem to lack focus or a conclusion. All of these examples are ways in which melody helps to structure our understanding and evaluation of a piece.

Start with the melody of a piece. Learn it well. Analyze it, sing or play it, and let it guide you to a greater understanding and appreciation of music.

Greg Wilbur

Greg Wilbur

Gregory Wilbur is Chief Musician at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, TN, as well as Dean and Senior Fellow of New College Franklin. He is the author of Glory and Honor: The Music and Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach and has released two CDs of his compositions of congregational psalms, hymns and service music.