The Mystery of Melody

I spend a lot of time on the deck of my country home studying birds and listening to their distinctive calls. The jay is a mimetic impresario, shrieking like a banshee or warbling like a flute; the cardinal boasts several different registers, including a wolf-whistle and a truncated siren; the dark-eyed junco’s trill and chip has little pitch differentiation; nuthatches squeak; robins cheep; cedar waxwings emit a scrannel falsetto, a high-pitched shree; downy woodpeckers drum, their hatchlings sound like lighter clicks; crows and grackles resemble Tom Waits on steroids; chickadees emit a flat peeping sound, the eponymous chicka-dee-dee-dee, which is a form of recognizable communication. Whenever we put out seed, they signal to each other the availability of grub with an eight-note “dee.” Quite remarkable, really. But none of them produces melody.

Even the famed Keatsian nightingale, pouring forth its soul “in some melodious plot/Of beechen green,” does not really sing. Tristan thrumming like a nightingale—cum russino, as the 12th century poet Thomas of Britain described it in his Tristan—to attract and summon Isolde would scarcely have worked in reality. It couldn’t have sounded any worse than Stravinsky’s screechy symphonic poem Le chant du rossignol (Song of the Nightingale). (Full disclosure: my original Russian surname, Soloveitchik, means “nightingale” and was adopted by the Levite Soloveitchik family to signal its duty as Temple singers.) More to the point, the term “birdsong” is a misnomer, or merely a metaphorical designation for ease of reference. A sonogram display, used in analyzing the structure of bird calls, does not track a melody but a concatenation of syllables that simulates a few blips on a hospital monitor.

All of this got me thinking one day about melody. Although like everyone else I knew a melody when I heard one, I had no idea what a melody actually was, that is, what I knew on one level, I didn’t know on another, a paradox of epistemology. I decided to consult my dictionaries, if only as a preliminary step or rudimentary gesture toward comprehension.

The Santorella Dictionary of Musical Terms defines melody as “an organized succession of three or more notes.” This is clearly an unsatisfactory definition since a minimal sequence of notes, indefinitely repeated, often (though not always) with little or no pitch variation, does not constitute what we would normally recognize as a tune. After all, nothing prevents us from generating an organized sequence of notes which may strike us as a demonstrable sonic structure but which we would never hear as a melody. Schoenberg’s atonal or Twelve-Note compositions, in which all twelve notes of the chromatic scale have equal weight and importance, does not yield melody but, as Michael Walsh writes in The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, “music worked out on paper,” expressing a Marxist conception of post-Capitalist culture in which all citizens—aka units—are equal regardless of talent, intelligence and productivity. This is neither music nor melody; it is politics of the dreariest sort.

The Oxford Dictionary of Musical Terms provides a slightly better description of the phenomenon we call “melody,” but fails to consider it in its essence, where it comes from and why it should exist. To say it is “a succession of notes of varying pitch, with an organized and recognizable shape” does not get us very far. So are many other audible events that are not especially or even remotely “melodic.” To attribute melody to dolphin-speak, as the Oxford does, begs the question. (Similarly, the theramin-like language of whales cannot be heard as melody.) To categorize melody as one of the “fundamental capacities of the human species” is true, but unhelpful. The issue is how we hear melody as a unique, modular configuration of sounds which are tangible and yet incorporeal, as if inhabiting an ethereal region between the neural and the spectral and eliciting a vast range of sympathetic response.

I’m not about to dive into the complex universe of musical theory, the history of musical development and its technical armature, or even the romantic pathos of tonal impressionism. Of course, music in the fullest sense—tempo, pitch, timbre, the diverse scales, texture, “color,” counterpoint, their combinations and temporal relationships—is one of the great mysteries of human spirit and culture. Its intrinsic components in their multiple arrangements, however, can be mastered. Here I’m preoccupied with something no less or even more fundamental, cryptic, occult, and maybe unfathomable; namely, with the enigma of melody, that “something” which cannot be mastered. One thinks, too, of the ineffable “sweetness” of melody, what the Greeks called μέλος (mélos) or μέλισμα (mélisma)—song, air tune—derived etymologically from μέλι (méli)—honey. Which brings to mind Aristotle’s maxim in Book VIII of the Politics, quoting the revered poet and musician Musaeus: “Song is to mortals of all things the sweetest.”