The West, The Rest and The Melody

More than once lately, I’ve run across the opinion that the European musical tradition of analysis and codification often stifles musical expression. Non-European musical traditions are said to provide an antidote to this over-intellectualization of the building blocks of music.

This is definitely an over-simplified generalization, but like a lot of generalizations, it helps put things into some perspective. The Western common practice tradition has always been more cerebral than visceral, chiselling musical ideas and squeezing them into time-honored forms and conventions. On the other hand, African and Asian cultures (especially tribal ones) and their derivatives gave freer reign to unabated self-expression, feeling and improvisation.

The European and African approaches did come together in America, producing most of the most important and invigorating musical styles of the last century, such as ragtime, blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Since then, the coming together of such disparate musical legacies has been a win-win situation. More systematic approaches are saved from sterility while the more instinctive ones become more directed and have a better chance of being preserved in some way.

The interesting thing is the preponderance of the melody. Being that melodies are the most universally appealing, readily apprehensible and indelible element of music for lay listeners, it is ironic that it has been most prominent in the West. Of course, melodies have always existed outside the Occident, but not really as central, noncontingent themes with agreeable notes of the kind that has come to define most of what we would deem popular music today.

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