March 5, 2016

THE MYSTERY OF MELODY, as explored by David Solway:

I am by no means suggesting that other musical traditions are not valid and authoritative and beautiful in themselves, but I am proposing that melody per se, in its richest and most memorable form, was detected—and perfected—by the Western sensibility. I will surely be accused of ethnocentrism in advancing such an hypothesis but it seems persuasive to me and at least worth considering. This is not, however, an argument I relish plunging into, and it remains at a tangent to my main thesis.

All this discussion notwithstanding, I still can’t say what melody is. I do know that melody is something that can be hummed, and that I can’t hum plainchant or rap or Ravi Shankar. Hummability is the basic litmus test of melody. Melody is also something that is deeply satisfying, affording us an inexplicable pleasure that is not somatic. It is sensuous but not sensual, appealing to a dimension of our being that oscillates between the emotional and the spiritual, which is why it can affect our mood in profound ways and compel us to echo, duplicate, replay, rehearse, and listen to it over and over again.

Read the whole thing; it’s a beautiful piece of writing.

As Idiocracy’s co-screenwriter Etan Cohen recently tweeted, he didn’t realize he was writing a documentary, yet that film’s theme of de-evolution certainly does seem to playing out in so many aspects of today’s culture. In music, it can be seen most obviously in the decline of melody over the last quarter century. Tin Pan Alley and mid-century pop crooners such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were all about melody. The Beatles maintained that tradition, with Paul McCartney writing complex melodies and Lennon somewhat simpler lines, but framed by unique and idiosyncratic chord sequences. Motown’s in-house songwriters could craft brilliant compositions, and both the Beatles and Motown’s influence were so strong, they impacted pop music for years after the Beatles broke up and Berry Gordy dissolved the original Detroit-based Motown studios and moved to L.A. Even the heavy metal of the ’70s and ’80s had songs with strong hooks.

And yet, starting with the proto-rappers the Last Poets of the late 1960s, and then really gathering force as a commercial genre a decade later, rap music is all about the elimination of melody, as is the Cookie Monster-style tone of the post-Metallica leather-lunged “Death Metal” belters that emerged in the late ’80s and ’90s. And while other forms of pop music of today are for the most part gentler on the ears, 2010-era pop all too frequently reduces the lead singer to a warbling a childishly simple melody that’s then massively processed, pitch-corrected, and harmonized via programs such as Auto-tune and Melodyne. The latter is a particularly powerful and user-friendly program, which I love using as a way to add professional sheen to home studio recordings. But in the commercial world, much of today’s studio technology, somewhat akin to digital special effects in movies, is by its massive overuse, moving the craft of pop music backwards.

To refer back to Idiocracy, I wonder what pop music’s long-term future is. Or the lack thereof.