Friday, January 31, 2014

The Age of Melody

After watching the Grammy Awards on TV this week, I came away recalling some inviting rhythms (Daft Punk), biting lyrics (Lorde), and sweet voices (Kacey Musgraves) – in addition of course to the costumes and special effects.  But I can’t say I came away with a catchy new melody.  The age of melody is long gone.  After the golden era of song-writers like Gershwin and Porter, tunes took a back seat starting in the 1950s, displaced first by rockin’ rhythms, then by the lyrics of folkie songwriters.  In the age of the singer-songwriter, a tune was just a few repetitive notes to hang the verses on.  And in rap music, melody disappeared completely, as music got down to just the word and the beat. 

Someday, melody is going to make a big comeback.  That’s not because any of the above trends were wrong or not necessary.  It’s because melody is the element of music that says the most, on the most basic level.  It’s the musical statement that stands for the whole piece.  And it lasts longest in the memory. 

In his book “Musicophilia,” Dr. Oliver Sacks describes elderly demented patients who can’t speak or remember anything, but who can whistle a tune, sing, or play the piano.  It seems a few notes, strung together, stay together even when everything else falls apart. 

For me, a couple of tunes – fragments of tunes really – have stuck in my memory since I was an adolescent.  They opened up the world to me in a way that words or pictures could never do.

The first tune was a little French waltz called “Roses of Picardy.”  I read the title as it was spinning on a portable Victrola, in the gym of my elementary school.   In sixth grade, we were being introduced to social dancing.   The waltz we learned was a clunky box-step, but the music – along with the touch of a girl -- gave me a sense of a world beyond anything I’d experienced. 

“Roses of Picardy is in a major key, but it begins up in the four-chord, in no hurry to come down.  Instead it floats up into the relative minor, then slips back and forth between major and minor, never really making up its mind, until the end.   She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not, she loves me.  In the end it doesn’t matter, as we begin the tune again. 

Years later I made my way to France, but I felt like I’d been there before, thanks to “Roses of Picardy.”  I could understand the way men and women see each other, enjoying each other but not in a hurry, not anxious to define, not insisting on anything.   It’s the plaisir d’amour, without the American hustle. 

The second tune I heard on a jukebox, at a lunch counter across the railroad tracks from my junior high school, on the edge of the black neighborhood.  On an impulse, I dropped a nickel one day and pushed the keys for something called “Harlem Nocturne.”  Out came the wail of a tenor saxophone. 

“Harlem Nocturne” begins with a leap, an octave in the first three notes.  The melody hovers, shivers, and then:  Whap!   It gets knocked down, brought to its senses.   It tries the leap again, even higher but with the same result.   Later it falls in stages, as if tripping down the stairs.  The sax player wrings the changes, feeling the ascent and the descent, knowing the inevitable but taking the leap again, and again. 

Today I live at the edge of Harlem, and I feel at home.  I don’t hang out in jazz clubs, but at night I still feel the presence of “Harlem Nocturne.”  It lets me know I’m not alone in shooting for the moon, and falling short, and taking another shot, and another. 

Dr. Sacks quotes Schopenhauer on music:  “The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain..  Music expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, never these themselves.”  In other words: music is not just an accompaniment to life, it gives us life itself, in pure form, free from the particulars.  Hearing the Funeral March in Beethoven’s Third Symphony, you can know the feeling of grief, but without the heavy weight of losing someone.  In this way music can teach us about life, even before we experience it in reality.  The melody is the message.

From “Roses of Picardy” I learned about love, long before I had to go through its vicissitudes.   From “Harlem Nocturne” I learned the blues, long before I failed at anything important.  These are just two of the melodies that introduced me to the world, prepared me for what was to come, and stick with me even as life turns into memory.  According to Dr. Sacks, they’ll stick with me even if I lose my memory, because they’re hidden in a deeper place. 

Today you can find these tunes on Youtube, of course, as I did to supplement my remembered fragments.  But don’t expect the same experience I had as an adolescent.   I can’t locate the originals on the web; the links provided above are the best approximation I could find to my memories.  But there are no links to my subjective experience.  It’s an effect not just of the tune, but also of the listener, the time and the place.

Still, you can tell us about your tunes, if you have melodies that mean something for you.  Write me or use the space to comment below.  

-- Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips


  1. Very insightful, and deeply personalized, Tom you could be a fine music critic....Seriously, I was relating my similar experience with the Grammy Spectacle, and felt that lack of melody, supplanted with insincere emoting and overblown tinsel, I wanted the music, to move me somehow, I didn't know what was missing, as a basic and necessary component, its the melody, if it doesn't swing, it don't mean a thing......Kerry

  2. I didn't get a chance to see the Grammys and I do agree with you to a point about modern melody and the lack thereof, but, modern music reflects the modern age, part of the reason you enjoyed the old waltzes and the tin-pan alley hummables is specifically because you had to fire up the old Victrola to listen to it! It was the height of modern technology at it's time and part of the reason you enjoyed it so much, it made you feel current and hip to modern progress. Music reflects the culture around it and in our new demographic, African and Latin rhythms are infused into everything we hear today, from Howlin' Wolf to Daft Punk and all of Rock 'n roll in between. Digital bleeps and blorps sampling, sequencing, found sounds...those are the new instruments! and Ain't no going back now pops...LOVE YOU DAD!!!!!

    1. Dear Djangus Khan -- that's a very good point about the African and Latin rhythms.. but these are not incompatible with a beautiful melody (cf. "Besame Mucho," or "Girl from Ipanema.") As for the technology, it's true I thought Victrolas and jukeboxes were cool, but I never liked a song just because it came out of a jukebox, any more than you like a song for hearing it on an IPad. The melody, not the medium, is the message. So I'll stick with my prediction (especially after watching the Super Bowl halftime show) that someday soon, someone will discover that a few notes, strung together in a bewitching melody, can charm the world. Love you too, man!

  3. Great article Tom and great discussion. I especially enjoyed Djangus' insights. I learned a lot from this. Thanks!

  4. Love your ideas, writing and images, Tom! (And I love Harlem Nocturne!) This reminds me of my graduating recital from New England Conservatory of Music, in 1983, where I played a number of English dance tunes with my quartet Bare Necessities. At that time in the academic music composition world, electronic and 12-tone composition were where it was at. My most beloved teacher from NEC came to my recital, after having attended a program of "New Music" at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts--he reported having listened to a composer/performer who had just "discovered" a major triad and apparently sat at the piano on the stage and repeatedly played a C Major chord.. My teacher chuckled as he recounted having gone from that concert to my recital, where we unabashedly improvised on tonal melodies and harmonies, without trying to be "New Music." Worlds colliding ...