To talk about melody in the manner of a
music dictionary--as "a series of
notes played one after the other (not simultaneously)"--may be precise,
but misses much of the word's real meaning. After all, melody is often the
most memorable aspect of music. A good melody can make us joyful, or
it can make us wallow in melancholy. In fact, melody is so crucial to our
notion of good music that we have come to associate the entire concept
of "inspiration" with a composer's ability to write a good tune.
Melody plays a variety of roles in music,
often simultaneously. First, and
perhaps foremost, melody is a means of expression. In a song, opera, and
other vocal works where the music is composed to a text, one can find
ways in which the composer wrote the melody to express the meaning of
the words. Sometimes this expression is very specific: if the text is about
crying, for example, the melodic line may descend like a falling tear. This
technique was developed in the late Renaissance and early Baroque
periods is often called "text painting."
A charming example of text painting is
found in Claudio Monteverdi's
madrigal "Zefiro Torna" for two tenor voices and instrumental
accompaniment. In this excerpt, the text is about sounds "echoing in the
hills and valleys." Monteverdi clearly wrote the music to evoke the and
the tenors' phrases are composed to sound like echoes.
(MPEG-2, Filesize: 121K)
Not all vocal music uses "text painting"
techniques, however. Sometimes
just the shape, or character of the melody will reflect the meaning of the
words. To use a well-known example, the theme from the final movement
of Beethoven's : Ninth Symphony is set to a text by the German poet
Friedrich von Schiller. The words are a hymn to brotherly love, and this
joyful, hopeful, hymn-like character is captured by Beethoven in the
melody he crafted. Beethoven's melody seems to actually intensify the
meaning of the words.
(MPEG-2, Filesize: 120K)
Now, listen to part of the main theme from
the last movement of Brahms'
Brahms: First Symphony
(MPEG-2, Filesize: 123K)
Although this is a piece of "pure instrumental"
music and there is no text,
try to describe the character of the melody. What kind of words would
you write to go with this music? How does Brahms' theme compare with
Beethoven's theme from the Ninth Symphony? Is it at all similar in
character? How are these themes different?
As with any other aspect of music, in order
to understand how a melody
functions, one needs to listen actively, even analytically. All that analytical
means in this context, is that one asks questions about the music. The
primary purpose of comparing the themes by Beethoven and Brahms is to
try to describe those melodies as specifically as possible. Asking
questions is especially important for analyzing instrumental music, because
there is no text to clue us in to the emotional character of the music. (Note
that one does not need to know any musical terminology to answer these
The first step should be to try and describe
the nature of the melody.
Listen to its range and contour and try to visualize its shape. Is it
expansive or concise? Does it ascend or descend? Does it undulate, or is
it flat? Answering these questions will help you to define the melody's
character. Often it helps to compare melodies. As most musical works
are made up of many melodies, you can compare melodies within a single
work. Such comparisons within a work will help when we come to form,
another fundamental part of music.
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