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Melody is the pretty part.

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And now it’s time for another installment of our sporadic series “Sh*t My Texbook Says.” 1

Let me share with you the first paragraph of Dr. Wright’s excellent essay “Understanding Poetry” on melody:

A melody, simply put, is the tune. It’s the part we sing along with, the part we like and are willing to listen to again and again. TV pitchmen try to entice us to buy a CD set of “The Fifty All-Time Greatest Melodies,” but not a similar collection of rhythms or harmonies. Rhythm and harmony are merely supporting actors; melody is the star. The more the melody shines, the more beautiful is the music.

Had I not been sitting in a public place when I read this, I may have thrown the book across the room. First off, saying that the melody is the tune is completely useless. They are synonyms, and it’s important for students to know that the words are more-or-less interchangeable. However, if we’re trying to teach students to listen thoughtfully and make empirical observations about music, we’re going to need a better tool.

Second, rhythm cannot be separated from melody. We like to say that melody is a sequence of pitches. That’s a nifty saying, but it is most certainly not true. It isn’t just the order of the pitches that defines a melody, it’s also the rhythm in which those pitches occur. Rhythm is also more fundamental to the way we perceive sounds. You cannot hear a pitch without it occurring in time (rhythm), but you can definitely hear a rhythm without a definite pitch. (Take a moment here to clap a clave rhythm for yourself. You’ll feel better. I promise.)

Finally, Dr. Craig-M-Wright-PhD’s last sentence might as well end “…and therefore is better and more valuable than music that does not emphasize melody, but that stuff’s not really music anyway, right?”

Reading this book always reminds me of this:

Notes:

  1. The textbook in question is Listening to Music by Dr. Craig M. Wright, Ph.D.