A Bottomless Well of Melodies

“Magic Well” by escariel

It has been suggested that some day all the melodies available to us from the 12 tones of the Western scale will be used up. Indeed, how many melodic possibilities could there be in this seemingly short stretch of notes? The truth, of course, is that we are nowhere near exhausting the melodic riches contained in the musical scale.

Further, when octaves, modes, rhythm, harmonies, dynamics, tempo and style are considered, one realizes that mere notes on a scale are only the starting point of music, like a preliminary sketch of a completed painting. But even considering just scale steps, the melodic potential is mathematically limitless, like numerical combinations of the same set of digits.

A good way to illustrate the endless possibilities is by comparing melodies that contain similar phrases, yet sound completely different because of their respective musical contexts. So, for instance, the Tinker Bell leitmotif from John Williams’ score for the movie “Hook” begins with outlines of a 2nd inversion tonic minor chord (Bbm). In Modern Talking’s “Brother Louie”, we find almost the exact same (tonic) chord tone melody, only here it is Ebm. These compositions aren’t even remotely alike; both have different tempos and styles, with instrumentation and moods worlds apart, yet both contain almost identical melodic elements.

Countless other instances of similarities between ostensibly unrelated compositions have been observed, often with undue accusations of copyright infringement. For example, Queen have been accused of plagiarizing a section of Aaron Copland’s famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” for the chorus of their classic “We Will Rock You”.

A similar situation occurs when comparing the beginning of the verse in The Beatles’ “All My Loving” and a particular transition in “Kathy’s Waltz” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. However, instead of suggesting actual appropriation of intellectual property, these examples only demonstrate further that matching melodic phrases can be virtually unrelated in terms of mood, style or harmony.

All of this isn’t meant to suggest that there haven’t been instances of deliberate theft of melodies. However, cryptomnesia is also to blame for many of history’s melody-lifting. If we stick just to the Beatles, we have at least two such instances. First, We have Paul McCartney’s timeless “Yesterday“, which musicologists have traced to Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” and Nat King Cole’s and Frankie Laine’s “Answer Me, My Love”. However, the link is legally tenuous. The connection seems to be more visceral than anything else; McCartney, at worst, imitating in sincere flattery.

A more unfortunate example of subconscious plagiarism involved McCartney’s bandmate, George Harrison. The resemblance of Harrison’s solo hit “My Sweet Lord” to “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons was so uncanny that litigation promptly followed its release. But cryptomnesia or dishonesty should not obscure the compositional reality of the sheer mathematical inexhaustibility of the melodic well.

In closing, an interesting observation occurs when looking at the juxtaposition of melodic phrases such as John Williams’ pixie theme and “Brother Louie” above. The real musical similarities are to other works in their authors’ repertoire. A comparison of Williams’ piece with a certain motif also performed on the celesta from his “Home Alone Overture” makes this clear. Just as comparing “Brother Louie” to other songs by Modern Talking, which for the most part seem to sleep-walk through the same chord progressions.

Such similarities are pretty obvious but the point is that they’re the only real musical limitations, whereas recurring melodic elements are not. Even a versatile composer is always ‘limited’ by his inadvertent idiosyncrasies; i.e. signature style. This hardly constitutes a problem. True confinements result from hackneyed conventions such as predictable chords.

The 80s – Back to the Future

Towards the end of the 70s, there was a change in the air. For a decade now, rock music was becoming ever more progressive and experimental. The social emancipation and rise of recreational drug use as expressed in The Summer of Love had infiltrated music and mainstream culture in general.

In the latter half of the 60s, musicians had become dissatisfied with apparently stifling pop-song conventions, such as under-3-minute running time or the verse-bridge-chorus form. An interesting parallel took place in cinema – many film directors were also feeling their artistic expression was being hindered by moral censorship as expressed in the Motion Picture Production Code, and they eventually led to its demise.

So the 70s were full of progressive or psychedelic rock bands, concept albums, 20-minute guitar solos as well as pretentious subject matter. The silver screen reflected this zeitgeist of self-indulgence and artsy-fartsyness, with directors beginning to rival film stars in celebrity status. Back in the world of music, certain subcultures such as disco continued music production along more traditional lines unabated.

Not that this explosion of expressionism was all for the worse; the 70s produced a lot of great music and art, often because of – and not despite – their solipsism. The most important thing to consider, though, is that this period of excess had to happen before a synthesis of new and old ways could emerge. This synthesis was the 1980s New Wave. Having gone through the looking glass and reached aesthetic bankruptcy, the popular music world was looking for a way back home like a prodigal son…

Even though the synthesizer was gaining prominence at this time, the synthpop that emerged with its help has been called ”perhaps the single most significant event in melodic music since Mersey-beat”. So while reaching for a cutting edge, futuristic instrument, musicians were increasingly looking back to traditional, time-honored songwriting and melodies as if in counter-revolt to the iconoclastic bohemianism before them. This Hegelian perspective effectively makes the term “synthpop” a double entendre.

Of course, not all of the 80s was about synth pads and electro beats (although synthesizer and drum machines are no doubt iconic symbols of the decade). The prevailing feeling was of fun and flamboyance instead of the serious introspection and self-conscious intellectualism that had become so commonplace. Suddenly it was ok again to make 3-minute pop songs about love or dancing… with admittedly novel quirks such as sci-fi motifs and anaemic (almost robotic) performance styles. At the same time, the new wave often betrayed the geopolitical tension of the times; the spectre of nuclear war permeating a lot of professional creative activity.

So the return to good old, formulaic, crowd-pleasing songs and melodies after the cultural rebellion of the 60s and 70s was inevitable. It reinvigorated music and introduced the world to the sound of the future.

Jean Michel Jarre – Composer vs. Innovator

Jean Michel Jarre (1948-) is one of the most influential popular composers of the late 20th century, though he is mostly unknown in the United States and Canada. Son of the renowned French film composer Maurice Jarre (who scored classics such as David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”), he almost single-handedly inspired the electronic dance music that has spawned countless subgenres and is as ubiquitous now as sliced bread.

Of course, the general consensus with regards to the origins of synthpop (the proto-EDM) is that it was inspired by German synth outfits, with Kraftwerk at the helm. Yet these were avant-garde krautrockers, who didn’t really set out to do pop music. Jarre did, providing a more direct and logical precursor for 80s synthpop. This, even though his very popular music had no lyrics (which is uncommon particuarly in North America). Jarre’s music is still often described as experimental and artsy even though his appeal clearly stems from his uncanny ability to write timeless, catchy tunes.

And this appeal is massive even after over four decades in the music business. Starting with his 1976 debut “Oxygène”, his albums have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide and attendance at his spectacular open-air concerts has been record-breaking. His place in popular music is undisputed. Yet this place is often relegated to just his technical accomplishments as a synth pioneer. At times, one wonders whether Jarre things any differently - being that he is often more interested in talking about his equipment than melody-making.

Jarre also often credits his one-time mentor, Pierre Schaeffer, the developer of musique concrète (an experimental school of music where a variety of recorded sounds are sampled), with shaping his musical philosophy and prefers to talk about the textures he constructs with synthesizers instead of notes and chords. Indeed, Jarre is considered an exponent of musique concrète even though this background alone would not have propelled him far. His compositional wizardry did.

So whether perceived positively or negatively, Jarre’s music being ‘electronic’ and ‘experimental’ seems to obscure most discussion of its other qualities. The fact that synthesizers or sampling never really became mainstream doesn’t help either. For example, to this day the theremin isn’t taken seriously as an instrument but is associated with 1950s B-movies about alien invasions… and Jarre’s music has actually been referred to as ‘space music’.

Perhaps in response to this kind of disparagement, Jarre once remarked that what he has done with synthesizers in the 20th century is no different from what a Joseph Haydn was doing in the 18th. Namely, both musicians utilized the most advanced technologies of their day. Clinging to traditional instruments (orchestral or other) just as dismissing cutting edge instruments (such as synthesizers) as ‘spacey’ or ‘futuristic’ misses the point of music-making. This is the fault of our superficial cultural clime, which is content with letting personal or collective impressions trump reality. Projection, it seems, is the norm.

At the end of the day, Jarre has succeeded in being ‘descriptive without words’ – a musical ambition he has had since hearing jazz in his childhood. He is also living proof of the power of the melody to trump all other considerations in music, from technical to philosophical.

Some recommended listening:

“Happiness Is A Sad Song” – from Jarre’s musique concrete days

“Equinoxe 7″

“Magnetic Fields 2″


“Chronologie 4″ – live in Barcelona

“Oxygene 10″

A Tale of Two Songs


I’m learning to play two piano pieces right now – Scott Joplin’s “Magnetic Rag” and “St. Louis Blues” by W. C. Handy. At one point I realized that these two songs, both of which were written by giants of African-American music, were both published exactly a hundred years ago in 1914. I found the juxtaposition interesting because whereas Joplin’s work signals the end of an era, Handy’s heralds the advent of another…

Scott Joplin was a seminal American composer who almost single-handedly popularized the vivacious syncopations of ragtime music in the late 1800s. Through timeless and indelible compositions such as “Original Rags”, “Maple Leaf Rag” “The Entertainer” and “Sunflower Slow Drag”, Joplin supplied the soundtrack for an entire era. The irresistible off-beat quirks of the rag have become synonymous with the optimism and prosperity of turn of the 20th century America.

W. C. Handy, meanwhile, gave the budding blues music of the early 1900s enormous exposure when he came into contact with Delta blues. It would be a stretch to call Handy the “Father of the Blues” (a description he himself propagated), but he contributed immensely to spreading this musical form with two songs he wrote, namely “Memphis Blues” (the first published song to use the word “blues” in the title) and, more importantly, “St. Louis Blues”, which is arguably the most influential blues song of all time. With this popular composition, the blues reached not only all corners of the United States, but of the world as well.

This song incorporates conventions established by ragtime composers, such as alterations between complementary and contrasting themes. So it has a minor section with a distinct habanera rhythm, giving way to the main theme, which is a standard twelve bar blues. Also, by Handy’s own admission, the piece attempts to combine ragtime syncopation with a spiritual-style melody. He was using these traits of the fading rag tradition as supportive devices for a new song form that would come to define popular music in the 20th century. Even the subject of St. Louis is interesting as this city was strongly associated with Joplin and ragtime.

“Magnetic Rag” was Joplin’s swansong (he would die only 3 years later). It is already an unusual piece for the King of Ragtime with its unconventional mixture of moods. But it is also noted for its C section, which is oddly reminiscent of the nascent twelve bar blues form, and which departs from the ragtime “oom-pah” left-hand pattern, changing to a walking bass line. Interestingly, several bars in this part are often performed with a broken octave boogie-woogie (a type of piano-oriented blues) bassline, which seems strangely suited for this section, fitting seamlessly as in the version by Ann Charters above.

So these are two different songs stemming from two distinct traditions which did in fact overlap here in 1914 (and most likely elsewhere as well). They illustrate and encapsulate, from two opposing angles, the changing dynamic in American popular music of this time.