When melody, harmony and rhythm interact in a meaningful way, it is powerful and magical. It can ignite emotion and provoke thought. When all of those together, interact with lyrics in a meaningful way, it can help shape the way people view the world and their perception of their own lives. Such meaningful interaction also applies to how music can interact with film, dance, theater, or video games.
When listening to current mainstream music however, it becomes very clear that the place of melody as one of music’s basic building blocks, is being reduced substantially, making space for other elements, such as texture and rhythm. The musical sentences are becoming shorter, more simplistic, and sometimes of incomplete grammatical structure; much like the sentences in cell-phone text-messages, or people’s posts on Twitter. In fact, sometimes some current music seems to have a level of melodic complexity that reminds me of actual birds’ tweets.
Many of us composers, songwriters and arrangers have come to think of what we do in terms of melody, harmony and rhythm. We tend to think of sonic-texture as the finishing stage, we may call it production, but typically we don’t think of it as the core element, or the essence.
Also, many of us think of what we do as a form of art; a pure personal expression.
The reality of the music industry today, as well as music history however, tells a very different story. With this article I am not trying to rant or complain, but rather make an observation about a shifting paradigm in music and the shift of balance between its building blocks, and how it seems to reflect and correlate to the social and linguistic changes in society in the US and around the world.
Just for the sake of having a meaningful discussion, let’s break music to four basic building blocks: Rhythm, melody, harmony, and sonic texture. Also, for the sake of this same discussion, let’s divide music to two categories: Functional music, and concert music. These categories may bundle together many other sub-categories, but that further category division may defuse the clarity, as there will be so many trees, that we won’t be able to see the forest.
In the beginning there was rhythm
While nobody knows for sure, it is believed that when music began, the most dominant if not the only element was rhythm. No melody, no harmony—just rhythm. At first it may have been random objects, and later drums. This may have been thousands of years ago, but at the time, that was it. This may seem very limited to us now, but when you only have rhythm to work with, you can created beautifully complex and expressive music using it alone.
Melody was probably the next element that came into play, mostly through the various religious chants; in most cases with little to no rhythmic or harmonic context. But before we continue to see how music is broken down to its various building blocks by history itself, and how the balance between these building blocks has drastically changed over the years, there is something else that needs to be addressed.
This is actually where the two seemingly separate subjects of this article come together in quite a surprising way.
So you wanted to be a composer, but making money through writing concert music is a very difficult task, so you decided to become a film, television, or video game composer. This will give you the freedom to write deliciously complex concert-like music that will be performed by symphonic orchestras and heard by millions. That is the premise on which so many composers pursue their career. The problem is however, that this premise is somewhat false, and we all realize it only later, when we seem to have achieved our goals, working as composers for the visual entertainment medium, but not really getting to write the music we want to write, the music we have inside and want to express. Instead, when writing music for other people’s projects, we write functional music, as in music that is there to serve a function. That function in the particular context of film music for instance, is to serve the director’s vision; his vision – not your own.
Gregorian Chant (Melody Only)
But that is not a new reality. In fact, music that couldn’t be categorized as functional music didn’t really exist in the western world until just a few hundred years ago. Concert music is a relatively new phenomenon. Looking back into the 9th-16th centuries, not only was music ordered by the church, but the writing itself was very strictly limited by rigid musical rules dictated by the church.
Such rules included limitations on which intervals are allowed within a melody. At first no harmonizing was allowed. Later, a second voice was allowed, but only in perfect intervals (as in octaves, fourths and fifths only). No thirds or sixths were allowed, as those were considered “unholy.” In the Gregorian chant (or “plainchant”, as it was referred to at the time), there was no rhythm either. The melody floated in free-flowing rhythm, with no rhythmic or harmonic context. When you feel frustrated with the limitations of writing functional music, you might want to consider that at least you are not being micro-managed to that extreme extent as your predecessors.
Homophonic Choral (chords, chords, chords – harmony only?)
Most common in the 17th century, this music is basically a series of chords. It’s tempting, for the sake of the argument, to state this music included harmony only, but that wouldn’t be accurate, as usually, within that series of chords a melody was included. The melody, however, did not move independently from the chords, but was rather notes within the chords that stood out through the melodic sense of the listener. Even though one could sense the melody in the Homophonic Choral, all voices were moving together rhythmically, and the emphasis was clearly on harmony.
Polyphony (Melody + counterpoint melodies)
Prominent in the Mid-17th – mid-18th centuries, this musical texture is created by stacking several different melodies in a meaningful way. This means that there are no actual chords played, but rather two or more simultaneous melodies that may create a harmonic context without actually playing chords, and are still maintaining a clear melodic sense for each of the melodies and counterpoint melodies in it. Bach was the composer most associated with that type of writing, but the concept of polyphonic counterpoint lives actively to this day, typically in a less pure polyphonic context. One of the only good examples of pure polyphonic music from recent time, which I can think of, is Bjork’s song “Army of Me” from her 3rd album – “Post”, where there are only her vocal, a synth bass line, one additional minimalistic counterpoint line, drums and some effects and hits which do not represent harmonic content. I’m sure there are more songs out there, but this one can demonstrate this concept really well, and the point is that it is quite rare to find this musical texture in its pure form in current music.
Modern homophonic music (most current popular music)
Mid-18th century – yesterday
Melody accompanied by harmony. Introduced in the mid-18 century and the most common musical texture almost to this day, Modern Homophonic music has a melody, which is accompanied by chords, to provide harmonic context. Almost all contemporary popular music falls under the definition of this musical texture.
(it’s all about the sound)
As oppose to musical texture, I’m referring to the sonic texture, sometimes also referred to as “color”. This building block is the orchestration and instrumentation in classical music, and in addition, the synthesis, filtration and mix, or “production”. This obviously always existed to an extent, but was only brought to the front of attention in what is usually referred to as modern classical music, introduced in the late 19th century and prominent in the beginning of the 20th century.
Jazz- Complex structures and free form improv.
Another music phenomenon which developed during the 20th century was Jazz. While Jazz is most known for the improvisation element in it, improvisation itself existed virtually throughout music history in one form or another, and is not unique to Jazz, however Jazz did introduce a new sense of rhythm and new colors of harmony, as well as new types of improvisation styles and techniques, and both simple and complex structures that did not exist before. It also paved the way to contemporary musical genres such as rock and pop.
Songwriting- How lyrics, melody and harmony work together.
Songwriting is a unique and powerful combination, which provides an opportunity to make the abstract art form of music mean more concrete things, as it is paired with lyrics. That meaning is created by either enhancing the existing meaning of the lyrics, or by contradicting it. This is achieved by combining all of the expressive facets of musical expression in order to interpret the lyrics through rhythm, melody, and through the interpretation of melody, given by harmony. Then of course, the arrangement and production may add an additional and sometimes crucial interpretation to the whole thing.
Harmony as a means of interpretation is often overlooked and deserves a closer look. One of the first things my harmony teacher ever told me back when I was a teenage student, was that for each note in the melody, there are always at least 3 options of harmonizing. That of course did not take into account all of the possible nuances, colors and tensions, but rather looked at the 3 basic harmony functions, which determine the increasing or decreasing perceived tension. Personally, I tend to utilize this concept often when trying to communicate or otherwise express certain feelings through music in general, and when trying to enhance a specific psychological effect in interpreting lyrics through music of a song.
Traditionally a hook is referred to as the most memorable element in a song or any other musical or textual peace. “I have a dream” and “Yes, we can!” are two great examples of memorable textual hook-lines of political speeches. The first 4 notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are a great example for a melodic musical hook.
Sometime in the second half of the 20th century (though I can’t seem to point the finger at exactly when, it is clearly somehow connected with the technological ability to record music and broadcast it in mass media), composers and arrangers began to recognize the commercial power of a strong hook line, and started creating such hook lines intentionally. The “Hook” became its own entity. Most of the early examples can be found in the arrangement, often as a catchy bass line, or sometimes as a healthy counterpoint melody in the arrangement. When added to a song which already held its own musical identity, this has actually enriched the complexity of popular music, while making it more commercially viable. Not too shabby.
The question is what happens if the next step is not adding hook lines to a song, but rather replacing the concept of a song with a hook only. From a melodic standpoint, this actually does often happen in two popular contemporary musical genres. Hip Hop and EDM.
EDM (rhythm and textures – and sometime a simple hook)
EDM (Electronic Dance Music) has emerged as a musical genre in response to the invention of the electronic synthesizer, and quickly became popular, especially in dance clubs. While synthesizers have been used in an enormous amount of mainstream popular music, the more hardcore fans of synthesis developed genres that revolved around the sound and sound development, and often kept the music instrumental, with no need for lyrics and vocals.
Over the years, electronic dance music developed into several separate genres, and now also includes sub-genres of mainstream pop which include lyrics and vocals. Regardless of whether EDM includes any vocals, contemporary popular EDM tends to include some musical hook. It’s not always melodic, and is often harmonic or merely in a distinctive effect of sonic texture.
In most cases (and yes, there are always exceptions), even when including a melodic hook, it is very simplified, and does not develop much melodically. Clearly, EDM represents a step away from melody as the central building block of music, and shifts the emphasis toward rhythm, harmony and sonic textures.
Rap (text and rhythm & sometimes a hook)
Rap (also known as Hip Hop) emerged as a non-mainstream way of expressing burning issues that otherwise were ignored by the mainstream media; a way to make statements to the public without the means that the mainstream provided. Just a rhythm background (A.K.A. “beat”) and rhythmic spoken word rhymed on top of it, sometimes prewritten, and often improvised.
The background rhythmic music is referred to as a “beat”, can be as simple as a basic electronic drum-loop, or as rich and complex as the beat-maker wishes, and in some cases it includes a fully orchestrated arrangement with both prerecorded elements played by a DJ, and other elements played live. The musical range is very wide in these genres in recent years, but in its early days, it tended to lean toward simplicity, largely because of the combination of budgetary limitations and the emphasis on the spoken word and the political and social message in it.
In order to add a commercial edge to rap music, hook lines were added. Such hooks could be a mere combination of rhythm and text, or could sometimes be melodic. As rap music started to make its way into the mainstream, it has also often been paired with either existing or new songs, where the rap portion functions as the verses of the song, and the sung portion functions as the chorus. In such combinations with existing songs, only the chorus is typically used, and sometimes not in its complete form, but rather only the most memorable portion of it.
It is also important to recognize, that once rap music moved from the repressed fringes to the embraced mainstream, the textual content gradually changed, and for the most part stopped dealing with social and political issued, and in many cases became very self-centered and sometimes bluntly narcissistic. I suppose this merely reflects the very real changes in the lives of the artists creating rap music, and not some kind of an artistic sellout.
Regardless of its textual departure from its original roots, rap music represents a very clear step away from melody as a prominent building block in music, and instead, it emphasizes lyrics and rhythm.
Remix (how melody was reduced to sound bites)
With the rise of the DJ as a creative force (partially thanks to Hip-Hop music), a new phenomenon began to emerge. The REMIX. Originally the remix was merely the repackaging of typically already popular existing songs, to make them more suitable for the dance floor. This standardization process made it easier for DJs to string and chain many songs into long sequences of continuous music. Slowly but surely, the production of remix versions of songs became common practice even before the song became popular in its original form, as a means to helping it become successful. Moreover, the beat-creation mentality of many creative DJs brought the concept of the use of short samples from the original song, which represent exclusively just the most memorable hook lines of the song, excluding all further developments and nuances.
It’s just like how an hour long political interview is reduced to a 10 seconds sound-bite in the news, taken out of context and stripped from all the depth that it might have originally had, a typical commercial remix does the same to music. There is nothing wrong with redressing and renewing songs, to keep them current and fresh, but when it becomes about standardizing them in order to make them all sound the same, and then reducing them to only sound-bites of what used to be a fully formed and well developed piece of music, then it might be time to let musicians create music and DJs play it.
The modern commercial remix slowly takes even the most wonderful music we love, reduce it to the little bits we remember best, and makes us forget the rest; worse, it sometimes would make us forget why we liked it in the first place. It is a major contributor to the deterioration of the musical language and the broken musical grammar, promoting broken musical sentences, which our ears are quickly getting desensitized to.
Changes in language and culture (The age of instant messaging and language deterioration)
The truth is that everything is interconnected. One phenomenon cannot be evaluated without looking and what are the forces that influence it. In the context of this article, as we look at the deteriorating complexity levels of melody, we must look at the changes in written and spoken language as well. As we live in the age of Twitter and instant messaging, we are forced to get used to wording our message within a very rigidly limited number of characters. Not only limiting the number of words, which limits the complexity of the message, and promotes broken grammar (by the need to get the point across with the minimum amount of words which still make for a coherent message, even at the expense of the integrity of the grammatical structure), but is also limiting the number of characters, which promotes incomplete spelling. It is now not uncommon to see even professional writers compile text messages such as “Will b sending u another revision shortly”. Friends of mine who teach college tell me that most of their students seem to be incapable of compiling a single structurally sound sentence when they speak or write.
It’s frightful, but it is also a testament to language being a living and breathing thing. None of us speaks the same way as people spoke 200 years ago. In fact, if a film was made, taking place 200 years ago, and kept the language truly authentic, it is unlikely that contemporary audience would be able to understand what is spoken. Similarly, music keeps reflecting those social and linguistic changes. I would assert that it is likely that the part of our brain that is responsible for comprehending language is also the same part of the brain which interprets music, and therefore adheres by the same rules. As our brains have gotten used to hearing hook-lines detached from the context of the full musical sentence and the development across a song or a musical piece, and as our brains are getting used to reading and writing broken sentences in order to fit the various digital character limits, our brains end up not expecting, requiring, or even craving the fully formed sentence, musically or otherwise. People seem to now respond more strongly to the font size and color in an email, then to the actual content of it, just like they seem to be satisfied with ultra-simplified melodies and incomplete musical sentences, as long as the music production offers an interesting or otherwise pleasing sound.
Many find those changes upsetting, and maybe there is a good reason to be upset about the undoing of so many years of linguistic, cultural and musical development, however when looking at those changes from a historical bird’s eye view, as demonstrated earlier in this article, it is easy to recognize that music and language as we know it, is just that. That over the years the level of complexity had been fluctuating, and the balance between the building-blocks of music have been constantly changing. It is a fundamentally unstoppable constant process. We can’t stop change, but the good news is that we can help shape it.