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AN OVERVIEW OF MELODY

When Leonard Bernstein took the helm of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 1950s, he began hosting the “Young People’s Concerts.” The series ran for over two decades. Each concert featured Bernstein explaining a musical topic or discussing (and performing) works by a modern composer such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Paul Hindemith, Gustav Holst, Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. The series began with “What Does Music Mean?” which offers numerous insights about melody. So does “What is Melody?”

The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without by Philip Ball. LINK

Ball’s hefty chapter on melody  picks up nearly every thread of the traditional theories of melody and untangles them. This provides a very solid foundation for anyone hoping to build a full understanding of the musical and psychological bases of melody.

Treatise on Melody by Anton Reicha (1770-1836) LINK

Reicha served as professor of counterpoint and Fugue at the Paris Conservatoire, where his writings gained a reputation as ground-breaking and highly effective. Anyone who loves do dig deeply into a subject and finds alternative perspectives invigorating will find this book highly rewarding.

Melody in Songwriting, by Jack Perricone LINK

Similar in scope and approach to Reicha’s Treatise on Melody, this recent book painstakingly works through just about every aspect of music that affects melody. (As I’m listing this on the FOM site, I need to comment that Perricone, whom I know and respect, doesn’t mention melodic figures.) Each chapter provides ample examples and assignments.

MELODIC FIGURATION

“Are there common Rules for the Design of a Catchy Melodic Figure?” by Christoph Anzenbacher  LINK

Is melodic figuration tied to memorability? Christoph Anzenbacher explores factors that may explain why some melodies stick with us, while others fade quickly from memory.

“Forward Motion,” by Hal Galper LINK

(from the author’s website) “The techniques of Forward Motion derive from universal laws of music first illuminated by Johann Bach over 200 years ago. These laws, based on the physics of sound and rhythm, apply to all music no matter their genre and/or geographical or temporal placement.”

Of all the resources on melody and figuration I’ve come across, this book has the most in common with the underlying principles found in Figuring Out Melody.

MELODIC STRUCTURE

“Composer’s Tools: An Interactive Idea List,” by Kenneth R. Rumery LINK

This web page contains an extensive outline of the component parts of music, which  aims to help composers keep hold of their bearings as they create melody. There are many good things here. It’s worth a visit. Regarding melodic structure, be sure to click on: “Contour, Continuity, and Reduction.”

Eugene Narmour’s ground-breaking volumes, The Analysis and Cognition of Basic Melodic Structures and The Analysis and Cognition of Melodic Complexity are influential and widely read throughout the world. LINK

Narmour has served as the President of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, and has been a guest professor and lecturer at Oxford University, Stanford University, the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. provides a summary of Naramour’s work on melody (the volumes cited above).

“Why Do Skips Precede Reversals? The Effect of Tessitura on Melodic Structure,” by Paul Von Hippel and David Huron LINK

In melodies from a wide variety of cultures, a large pitch interval tends to be followed by a change of direction. Although this tendency is often attributed to listeners’ expectations, it might arise more simply from constraints on melodic ranginess or tessitura. Skips tend toward the extremes of a melody’s tessitura, and from those extremes, a melody has little choice but to retreat by changing direction. Statistical analyses of vocal melodies from four different continents are consistent with this simple explanation.

MELODY AND PSYCHOLOGY

This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. by Daniel Levitin. LINK
This has become a classic text for music enthusiasts, though it is of great use to music makers, as well. Levitin explores two themes essential to our work: expectation and memory. His analogies and explanations not only make each concept crystal clear, an imaginative musical mind will eagerly dream up ways to apply them. This happened so powerfully to me that I had a hard time focusing on his text as I read. My mind kept returning to music I was working on at the time.

“Dissecting an earworm: Melodic features and song popularity,” by K. Jakubowski, S. Finkel, L. Stewart LINK

[from the authors’ summary] “The experience of involuntary musical imagery (INMI or “earworms”)—having a tune spontaneously enter and repeat in one’s mind—can be attributed to a wide range of triggers, including memory associations and recent musical exposure. The present study examined whether a song’s popularity and melodic features might also help to explain whether it becomes an earworm.”

ONLINE THEORY RESOURCE

 Music Theory for the 21st Century.  This site has 35 chapters that cover the basic issues in an undergraduate theory program. It’s well organized. And there are exercises to check that you understand the material covered.

MUSICA POETICA

Although my emerging theory of melodic figuration offers a new perspective on melodic structure, composition, and expression, there is a distant precedent. German composers in the 17th and 18th centuries understood that music could convey or arouse certain impressions and emotions. Many believed that these could be codified, similar to the ways that rhetorical devices had been within the trivium. I use the word “precedent” rather than “ancestor” intentionally. Although I have remained interested in the ways my musical forefathers thought about “musical figures,” in the end, there is little connection to the applications I find most valuable. Still, I include two helpful entry points into references for anyone interested in Musica Poetica and/or the Doctrine of the Affections.

MusicaPoetica.net contains an extensive list of rhetorical and musical figures, as well as a full bibliography.

Figures of Musica Poetica in the Passacaglias of Dieterich Buxtehude and J.S Bach is especially helpful to anyone who wants to get a contextual introduction to Musica Poetica and the Doctrine of the Affections.

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