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Melody—why isn’t it taught?

Melody is one of the four foundational materials—melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture— used to make music. It is also the one most people would cite as the most attractive, the one that draws audiences to the works of Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and others, and to the popular songs of George Gershwin, Diane Warren, Bruno Mars, and more. Yet I know of no college course that is devoted to teaching this subject in depth.

Why?

The usual answer is that melody is God-given; in this scenario, you either have the ability to conceive and compose interesting and beautiful melodies or you don’t. God, in this context, is an elitist, giving all of us the chance to study multiple courses in harmony, replete with its rules and guidelines, but hiding away the craft of creating melody except for the precious few. What nonsense! I can only guess why a curriculum and pedagogy in melody were not created: probably because between 1700 and 1900 the harmonic vocabulary kept expanding and, therefore, became the focus of teaching music.

In all fairness, yes, if you studied at a music college, you were taught some things about melody, but the things you learned about melody were almost always in relationship and subservient to harmony. In harmony courses, you were made aware of how melody has either a dissonant or consonant relationship to the harmony and you learned the names of the various dissonant relationships that occur: passing tones, neighboring tones, appoggiaturas, etc. Even in counterpoint courses, the subject of melody is often subservient to the harmonic relationship taking place between the voices.

Did you know that composers of popular songs during the era of “The Great American Songbook” were called melody writers? That is just one of the reasons that as the first appointed chair of the Songwriting Department at Berklee College of Music (1987), I decided my mandate would be to form a curriculum that would teach this heretofore ignored subject.

Would it be possible to conceive of melody without its reliance on its relationship to harmony? And, if it was possible, how could it be taught?

The task I set for myself, to put melody front and center in the new Songwriting curriculum, was daunting. But I was troubled by the question of would it be possible to conceive of melody without its reliance on its relationship to harmony? And, if it was possible, how could it be taught? I thought of monophonic music that I knew: the songs of Hildegard von Bingen or the many Celtic songs that are sung without accompaniment. And then I remembered how entranced I had been when I first heard recordings of Ravi Shankar playing the ragas of India, music that emanated from the drone, and I started to piece together a concept for teaching melody, of creating melody not in relationship to harmonies, but instead, in relationship to a tonal center.

Stripping away harmony completely and allowing melody to only relate to the tonal center and its overtones led me to reexamine and deepen my understanding and importance of the overtone series and the tone tendencies of scales most commonly found in popular songs. I created a pedagogy that starts with melody being conceived first to a tonal center, a relationship I designated as melody’s primary relationship. Once an understanding of the importance of that relationship has been established for the student, examining the relationship of melody to its harmony, its secondary relationship, exposes in a deep, empowering way how harmony works with melody. This approach gives melody its rightful place, not one that forces it into a pre-determined position by given harmonies, but one that allows melody to initiate the music and asks harmony to play its role in enhancing it. Of course, I do not dismiss the other, more common approach to creating a melody: by beginning with a chord progression and then composing a melody to it. That is still a perfectly feasible way to proceed and should be taught as well. It is simply not the only way.

The relationship between melody and harmony is quite complex and symbiotic. It is a relationship that is not simply tonal; it is also rhythmic because harmony is a controlling factor in form, and melody often serves to offset harmony’s too ridged metric positioning. Differentiating the melodic phrase from the harmonic phrase is a vital factor in creating interesting, memorable melodies and is a very exciting and teachable subject. Once these two relationships—melody to tonal center and melody to harmony— are completely understood, the resulting pedagogy expands and lights the pathways in which melody can be conceived and taught.

There are many topics in the study of melody that go beyond the scope of this short essay. For example, since melody is made up of both pitch and rhythm, the rhythmic aspect of melody is of paramount importance. My work in this area has mainly been centered on the relationship of words to melodic rhythm, especially how melodic rhythms often summon a need to rhyme. Other questions involving the aesthetics of music are complex unless they are confined stylistically, e.g., “what constitutes an interesting or beautiful melody?”—a topic worthy of an entire book!

My hope is that my work inspires teachers to create materials and courses that expand on my ideas. I would not have had the chance to explore this important subject without the creation of a Songwriting department in 1987, the first of its kind, and an example of the innovative approach to music that Berklee College of Music has had since its inception.

Featured image credit: Photo by MD Duran. Public domain via Unsplash. 

Recent Comments

  1. Steve Bolton

    Is the problem that melody is not taught, or is the problem that musics in which melody does not depend so much on harmony are not taught?

    If we taught music that has no harmony – of which there is plenty in the world – we would have more opportunities to teach melody and at the same time give rhythm the attention that it, too, desperately needs.

  2. Chiara Trapanese

    Thank you so much for this article, I found it inspiring!

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