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-   -   "Music is made of melody and counterpoint." Good article on classical music. (https://forum.dvdtalk.com/music-talk/434838-music-made-melody-counterpoint-good-article-classical-music.html)

grundle 08-19-05 10:57 PM

"Music is made of melody and counterpoint." Good article on classical music.

What Music Is Made Of

by Brad Edmonds

August 19, 2005

Music is made of melody and counterpoint. That’s all. Thanks, and have a nice day.

Okay, I’ll flesh that out a bit: As far back as we have records, melody was the beginning of music. What descriptions we have of ancient Greek music are that it was written for one voice – melody – and there were hosts of rules as to the construction of a good tune. Gregorian chant was originally single-line, or monophonic; and there were hosts of rules governing how those monks wrote their tunes.

A melody is a series of pitches, deliberately arranged in an order and spaced over time. There are good melodies and bad melodies. A "song" is a complete musical unit, often a repeating series of melodies, arranged into a particular form. The distinction between a melody and a song is academic, but useful here: A song is complete in itself, with a beginning and an end. A melody is just a series of pitches in time, not necessarily a complete anything.

A good melody makes a musical statement. The opening melody of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto commonly is cited as an example of a good melody. The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are not cited as an example of a beautiful anything. But the Beethoven work is superior to the Tchaikovsky, for other reasons. For one thing, the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th generate tension, expectation, and movement like almost nothing else ever written, before or since. (Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra is a close second.)

For music to be good, the melody can be just about anything. In the Beethoven example, the melody would be called a motive or motif – just a snippet, or a musical idea; "melody" makes most people think of something like a "tune," or a series of notes over time that constitute a complete phrase, or "breath." What matters for good music is what’s done with the idea. Beethoven builds an entire symphony on those four notes, which use only two pitches. The case can be made that the symphony is based on just that rhythm.

Indeed, the bigger a tune is, the less you can do with it as a composer. Imagine building a Lego structure: Would you want little square bricks, or 1-foot units already in the shape of houses? That’s part of the cleverness of Beethoven, and the dullness of Tchaikovsky. It helps immensely for your tune, or motive, to have (in the words of my major professor) a "distinctive thematic profile," or for the material to be memorable, clear, and somehow compelling. Beethoven managed that in every piece of his that we have.

So we have an idea about melody. It’s a single voice line that speaks. Usually it’s the highest-pitched part in a piece of music; the "soprano voice." (We call the parts "voices" out of habit.) Putting the tune in the top voice is good for the listener – it’s easier to follow, and somehow makes intuitive sense. But each line should be considered a melody, and evaluated as such; better music is made of better melodies in all voices.

Melody alone can be lovely, but it doesn’t keep anyone occupied for very long. To keep anyone’s interest for more than a few minutes, you need at least one other voice to speak along with the main melody. (To keep an entire 63-minute symphony interesting, it helps to have some other voices making noise between the highest and lowest voices; but two voices plus some noise in the middle are as much as most music needs – string quartets are usually more musically dense and challenging than symphonies.)

Once you have two voices, you have four sources of interest: The top voice, the bottom voice, the harmonies/harmonic intervals they create, and their rhythmic interplay. One of the great things about diatonic tonal music – that written between roughly 1500 and 1900 – is that the understood tonal substrate means you can use only two voices to imply dense sequences of harmonic events.

With just two voices, you can both create and imply complex dissonances and provide satisfying resolutions of them. (You can do this in a limited way with a single voice, but to do much of it requires gymnastics that can draw attention to themselves – fine for yodeling, but not good as a steady musical diet.) With two voices you can generate interest and tension to a far greater degree than with a single voice, and almost to the extent available to an entire orchestra.

It is counterpoint – what happens when multiple voices are speaking together – that carries music, and keeps us going from one moment to the next. Listen to a few Bach keyboard pieces for examples of clear counterpoint, then compare them to the usual tune-over-chords-and-repeat popular music on the radio. The difference is that Bach uses real counterpoint: completely independent, though interrelating, voices. Bach’s music is written to provide structure, contrast, development of a musical idea; pop music uses far more resources to produce far less information. Here’s a fun example.

In good counterpoint, in however many voices, each voice, heard in isolation, should produce an acceptable tune. Inner voices can get away with being bland and occasionally awkward, perhaps, but the outer voices absolutely cannot. The better the tunes for the individual voices, the better the music. Here is an example where the voices are easy to follow; listen to each one you can pick out, and you’ll see it makes a decent tune. This one is more notey and complex; it’s similar to a fugue, wherein voices enter one at a time, starting with the same tune but at different pitches.

Great tunes and counterpoint are what music is made of, but these building blocks must be arranged into a good overall form. The composer has to create a journey with convincing, satisfying destinations in each piece, or each movement. Each piece or movement needs a clear and interesting architectural structure, and the events themselves that make up the structure have to be worthwhile, for a piece to be among the greats. This is part of why Beethoven and Mozart are the greatest we’ve seen so far.

Part of the superiority we grasp in Beethoven and Mozart was a product of their times. Had either been born 100 years earlier or later, his music would have been much different. The period we call properly "classical" in music designates the years 1750–1830 (nothing in music is that clear, but we’ll go with the convention for now). Before that time, large architectural structures weren’t possible in the styles of the time; and after that time, few people focused on symphonies and chamber music – the most abstract genres – the way Beethoven and Mozart did. The rest of the 19th century was dominated by opera, perhaps because no one wanted to stand against Beethoven. Only Brahms had the nerve to focus on the most abstract music, and we’re glad he did.

("Abstract" music is that written only with reference to itself. Operas, ballets, and their like are written, by contrast, to accompany a script. Hence, the composer loses control over form. As something worthy of contemplation and analysis, the music always suffers, as did some of the work in Bach’s Art of the Fugue, being too self-consciously written to exemplify complex contrapuntal techniques.)

The classical style made large structures possible by spending long periods focused on a single dominant note, or tonic; and by employing standardized, but abstract and flexible, large-scale forms. Such forms were revived in the 20th century by Bartok and, occasionally, Stravinsky. It’s no wonder to me that we consider those two the greatest of that century.

Except for operas, ballets, songs, and tone poems, music is completely abstract. As it unfolds over time, sequences of events produce motion, contrast, development of an idea, and overarching structures that aren’t possible in any other art form and that don’t have an analogy in anything else in life. A playwright simply doesn’t have the option of exploring a sonata-allegro or rondo form when writing a play.

Music, especially abstract music, is uniquely and irresistibly compelling. A listening-and-analysis experience devoted to a great work plumbs every depth of focused intellect and unreasoning emotion at the same time, and provides perhaps the most satisfying mental experience available to mankind. To create such music, melody and counterpoint are all the building blocks we have.

The greatest composers used distinctive and relatively compact material; developed it with the building blocks of melody and counterpoint; and created forms using contrasting sections still based on material derived from opening motives and melodies (a pretty good trick).

The intellectual achievement can’t be overstated. Yes, if Mozart and Beethoven had been born 100 years earlier or later, their music would have been different; but you can’t say someone else would have written what they wrote. An Einstein would have arisen in physics if Albert hadn’t shown up; we were going to develop cell theory upon the invention of the microscope; and Mendel’s work would have gotten done without him, just a little later.

Mozart and Beethoven did things that wouldn’t have been done in their absence. Their feats of human invention are equaled in human history perhaps only by Newton and a few forgotten ancient Chinese. I’m glad they were musicians.

Gerry P. 08-20-05 01:01 PM

The article is very awkwardly written. It lacks a cohesive theme and structure [unlike, say, a Bach fugue] and is filled with strained conclusions and overreaching statements about what makes music "good" or "bad".

This must have been Mr. Edmond's freshman Music History assignment.

The Infidel 08-20-05 01:19 PM

You should read his other works: "This Is A Twinkie" and "Hammering A Nail Into A Board: The Novel".

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