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Saturday, February 1, 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 tune.  The age of melody is long gone. 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