Earlier this week I was sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting my turn. The silence of the exam room was broken only by the piped-in music. Had it been the regular bland kind of music that one usually hears in such a setting I don’t think I would’ve paid any attention to it. But this wasn’t that. The first tune I noticed that told me something different was going on was Henry Mancini’s 1958 classic “Peter Gunn Theme.” It struck me that despite how familiar that melody is, I’ve never heard it in the catalog of what I usually think of as waiting room music. The next tune that caught my attention was “Birdland,” by the vocal jazz group Manhattan Transfer. Then there was a Sinatra tune of all things, but I can’t remember which one it was. The last song I heard before the doctor came through the door was a tune that isn’t as foreign to the standard-issue easy-listening pop of waiting rooms but one that, by this point, I was conditioned to hear differently. It was Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot’s 1970 hit “If You Could Read My Mind.” What I focused in on was the quality of its melody: it’s one of the best melodies in all of popular music.
As a critical component of a piece of music, the melody of a song is what we most often carry around with us. It’s what we whistle or hum; it’s the arc of a song, the notes that carry voices or instruments up and down a particular scale from which is distilled an artistic statement. Ninety-nine times out of 100 it’s what’s most memorable or even famous about a piece of music. “You Are My Sunshine” for example has a wonderful, unforgettable melody. There’s an old adage about The Beatles that says John Lennon wrote better lyrics and Paul McCartney wrote better melodies. That’s a bit too simplistic perhaps, but it’s true that McCartney’s melodies, like Eleanor Rigby, which is his best, usually run circles around Lennon’s.
One of the best melodies in all orchestral music has to be the one from the first movement of Mozart’s Serenade in G Major. Indeed, it’s one of the most memorable melodies ever penned even though most people don’t know its name. Even its more colloquial title, “Eine Kliene Nachmusik,” doesn’t particularly roll off the tongue in a way that promotes familiarity, but I know that if I started whistling it you would join in before I finished the first nine notes. Early in the 1984 Academy Award-winning film Amadeus, it’s the melody that Antonio Salieri plays on the piano for the priest who’s come to hear his confession, bitterly certain that the young cleric will be familiar with the work of his rival if not his own.
Russian composer Tchaikovsky had a wonderful sense of melody that manifests itself most clearly in his ballets. (I’ve written before about this.) Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and of course The Nutcracker contain some of the catchiest melodies you’ll ever hear an orchestra play.
Strange as it may seem, despite its centrality to how we think of music, some pieces don’t have a melody, at least not a fixed one. Much of American jazz from a period in the middle of the twentieth century was improvisational: that is, the melody is completely dependent for its existence on a soloist who’s making it up as he or she goes along. One of the best selling jazz albums in history provides a prime example. The story goes that in 1959, Miles Davis went into the studio with his group armed only with a few sketches of songs about which he provided his players almost no detail, no melodies, just keys. The result was Kind Of Blue, widely regarded as the greatest jazz album ever made. It consists of great players making it up as they go along—the melodies don’t exist until they’re played. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and I don’t think I could really whistle any of the songs for you.
By contrast to Tchaikovsky’s ballets and to improvisational geniuses like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Charlie Parker, composer Igor Stravinsky’s modernist ballet Rite of Spring expresses its musical significance through rhythm more so than melody. Its jarring irregular pounding rhythms created a sensation when the work was first performed. Even today with its place in the canon secure I can’t quite imagine anyone leaving a performance hall humming parts of it.
What do we take away from an extended contemplation of melody? Mostly I think an appreciation that music can be both complex and intimate at the same time. The interactions between the rhythmic structure and chord progressions often provide the complexity. The melody on the other hand is the part with which we most easily interact and that most often provides the emotional connection that we enjoy with pieces of good music. But it can also be the means by which we’re drawn into a deeper understanding of how music itself in any genre comes alive from mere figures on a page.