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:
The textbook in question is Listening to Music by Dr. Craig M. Wright, Ph.D. ↩
First day of school here at Grand Valley State. In honor of that, I thought I’d share some more from this music appreciation text. I have a feeling that “Dave argues with a textbook” might become a running series here on the blog. We’ll see. Just a few grafs after the quote from my last post, I found this gem.
Briefly defined, music [emphasis in original] is the rational organization of sounds and silences passing through time. Tones must be arranged in some consistent, logical, and (usually) pleasing way before we can call these sounds “music” instead of just noise.
Seriously? We’re still using a value judgement in the definition of an art form? Rational, logical, and pleasing are a matter of cultural inheritance and personal taste. Also, “just” noise? Dr. Wright, what the heck is wrong with noise? Some people like it so much they make music out of it! Definitions like this remind me of early DSM definitions of homosexuality as a psychological disorder. Over 40 years after Stonewall, the Psychology world has since corrected their initial mistake. Almost 60 years after Cage’s 4’33″, at least some musicologists like Dr. Wright are still working things out.
[Dr. Craig M. Wright] is the author of numerous scholarly books and articles on composers ranging from Leoninus to Bach. [hyperlinks added]
Whoa! All the way to Bach? That’s a little edgy for me. Can we pull it back to Lully?
I’m teaching a new (to me) class this semester, Introduction to Music Literature, AKA Music Appreciation. The textbook we’re using (not my pick) is Craig Wright’s Listening to Music. Let me share a brief quote with you from the first page of Chapter 1:
Want proof of the allure of music? Next time you’re riding on a bus, a train, or the subway, look around and you’ll find that about twice as many people are listening to music as are reading. This is true pretty much everywhere around the developed world. But why does music have such universal appeal? Simply said, music has power.
First of all, if this were Wikipedia, I’d log in and put a  after that glaring statistic. “4 out of 5 dentists” works great in a toothpaste ad, but I think it’s ok to expect more out of academic writing than a 15-second spot on local television.
More importantly, can we ditch this “music is magic” stuff? Yes, music is great. I like it. I’ve spent a lot of time studying it, and I plan to spend a lot more. However, making it into this ethereal, supernatural entity makes it almost impossible to having a meaningful discussion about. The people on the subway aren’t listening to music; they’re just letting music fill in the space around them because it’s preferable to whatever other sounds (or lack thereof) are naturally there. As I see it, my job as a music appreciation teacher is to demonstrate to my students that actual listening requires something more akin to the attention and engagement of reading a book or newspaper. That, dear reader, is music appreciation.