Monday, 21 August 2017


Melody and memory



As music moves through time the listener has to process and retain chunks of information while being receptive to new material. One of the most elegant solutions by composers in assisting the listener is the creation of melody. There are various ways of thinking about melody, I like the notion of it being a pathway through a harmonic scheme. Melody is a line, and the best examples have an elegance which assist our memory. While it is a line it is also a chunk (less elegant word) of information in that it is linked with register, rhythm, articulation through dynamics and accents. In terms of human interaction it is what we sing (or whistle) from a composition to show affiliation with the composer. The elegant linear design may be subjected to reduction, expansion (Part’s Frates discussed recently forms an excellent example of the latter), or gradual transformation, but whatever the process the function of aiding memory is paramount.

Let us examine a segment of Scarlatti’s sonata in B minor Kp 377 to see the relationship of melody, harmony and character. The opening is in essence a B minor triad with an auxiliary note A’ leading back to B. The B, A’, B figure becomes a driving 16th note entity several times in the music. The A’/B pair also become a character of the melody by being placed in the upper register (twice with the repeated phrase). Underneath the melody we have a scale falling a sixth from B to G repeated four times, (recall that the opening melody outlines F’ down to A’ then rising to B). At the second part of bar 7 the bass figure is transferred to the upper where we have a run from G to B followed by the driving A’/B 16th notes.






The next section takes the rhythmic chunk of 2 x 16th notes followed by 4 x 8th notes and plays with it over a harmonic sequence, adding trills to make a fall of a fifth as in the opening bar, at the end of the sequence we repeat the driving A’/B figure which itself leads to a long sequence of 2 x 2 bars which is the transition to D major in the sonata design.

From this segment alone we can hear the witty interplay of figures, the chunking of scale and chord with repetitive rhythms and decorations over a static bass figure, preparing us for greater momentum in the second half of the sonata. It is delightful and elegant in forming a pathway through the work by repeated figures, (these as you would expect continue throughout). This seemingly simple two part work is rich in detail, just as required to assist our recall to hear the progression from start to close.

As music extended its scope in time scale and changing key and harmony these melodic chunks became longer and more complex, complex in the sense that the internal structure of the ‘string’ extends and alters, as it does e.g. in the opening movement of Mahler’s 8th symphony.

Bartók, who incidentally studied and admired Scarlatti, made dramatic and fascinating use of melody in his last string quartet. The opening melody introduces each of the movements, gradually extending its length on each hearing, transposed on G sharp, E flat, B flat and back to G sharp. Even in the first movement the theme is long, to my ears it has a basic outline of a rising passage and descending passage followed by a cadence section. Within this general shape there are a number of cells several of which are repeated, especially at the close where we have 01478 x 2 and 0147 sets. The sets have the characteristic of imbrication or if you prefer, overlapping, as may be seen from the second diagram’s opening line.


The building of longer passages from fragments of the melody (particularly through his contrapuntal skills) can be heard as Bartók moves towards the Vivace section, where successive 015 figures lead us into the faster tempo (recall that 0135 is the second of the sets at the opening). The two dotted 8th notes add to the character and forms the chunk that enables recall despite set / harmonic alterations. Between repeated sets, the ascending and descending character (see bar 197 in particular) and the dotted quavers Bartók ensures a clear pathway through the music, music which changes character in such a way that we have little doubt that the work is autobiographic in nature.

Completed in 1939 this music may be heard as backward looking, it has tonal / modal references, the use of folk elements is particularly clear towards the end of the movement, the autobiographic quality makes connections with romantic music (is it me or is there a brief R. Strauss reference in the movement)? Yet for all that the continual changes is like a Picasso portrait where we see an image from several different viewpoints, and as such far more modern than the immediate impression suggests.

portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler Picasso




By 1939 12 note compositions were well known, and according to my suggestion of melody being a significant aspect of retention, these should have been easy to recall because they demonstrate powerful interval structures. Despite the internal repetition of material many of the works require time and effort to recollect after hearing and anecdotal evidence suggests that even a century on there is still difficulty in engaging with this music. As we have seen pitch on its own is insufficient to chunk the material. There has to be character within the information given (as in the leap to A’/B in the opening of the Scarlatti), elegance in the outline, a fusion of parameters to form a chunk and articulation to direct the ear. This can be achieved in serial music or in in any style which creates design with fixed intervals and rhythm. Order alone is no guarantee of memorability.

I would like to finish with the point that melody has evolved as we become used to different long-term patterns of harmony, stepwise motion may give way to wider intervals, tonality altered by different tunings and micro tonality, clusters of events and so on. This third extract is rather beautiful, the opening of Sollazzi’s Evoked Potential Hour- Sea, it seems to move freely but in reality is based around D. It is lyrical, modern and old at the same time, and in that we have another function of chunking and memory, the relationship between our cultural experiences and the new.