July 29th 2017

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COVER STORY The rise and rise of Old King Coal

EDITORIAL Behind Donald Trump's endorsement of Poland

CANBERRA OBSERVED Cory Bernardi claims strong flow to his ranks

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Liu Xiaobo's extraordinary courage remembered

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Why we must fight for freedom: Trump in Poland

HEALTH Gardasil(R) and the man upon the stair, Part II

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Death of caliph will hasten end of Islamic State

MUSIC What's in a tune: minor change makes a major difference

CINEMA Spider-Man: Homecoming: Reboot on a domestic scale

BOOK REVIEW Moves that may push our constitution over

BOOK REVIEW Exposing the transgender agenda


GENDER POLITICS Edmund Rice Education Australia proposes transgender sex-ed

GENDER POLITICS Melbourne mum goes viral on 'Safe Schools'

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What's in a tune: minor change makes a major difference

by David James

News Weekly, July 29, 2017

Respect for other commentators’ wisdom and insight is always greatly increased when they arrive at a similar conclusion to oneself. Thus it is necessary to applaud the argument of Kurt Poterack, Adjunct Professor of Music at Christendom College in Virginia, who contends that popular music since the 1980s has lacked melody (“A people without melody”, getprinciples.com).

Poterack has a Masters and Doctorate in music composition, so is at least superficially qualified to comment. And he does take care to refine his position. He says what is lacking is tuneful melody, which he believes popular songs have in abundance. He defines that as tunes that people can “take with them”: sing, hum or whistle as they go about their daily activities. Most people can also easily sing them unaccompanied.

Such melodies, Poterack argues, have a degree of internal logic: “a shape, a waxing and waning, a rise and fall of the pitches, a focal point or two, and a long-term forward motion from note to note to note to its logical conclusion. Good melodies have, as Aaron Copland once wrote, an ‘inevitability’.”

The American songbook tradition, which ended in the 1950s, was based on these types of melodies, which are highly memorable. The Beatles and “adult pop” writers like Burt Bacharach and Antonio Carlos Jobim – and once again Poterack is undoubtedly extraordinarily wise because I agree with him – produced highly melodic and harmonically sophisticated pieces.

Poterack argues that popular music then took a turn for the worse, over-emphasising rhythm and reducing the need for melody. In truth, this began in the 1960s: rhythm is the key to the effect of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, and guitarist Jimi Hendrix.

That stress on rhythm continued in the 1980s and ’90s. Michael Jackson, probably the most successful pop singer ever, actually had a quite ordinary voice, but his rhythm was exceptional, even sublime. George Michael sang songs that had little melody but he had great rhythmic power.

Matters have degenerated further this century. Rap, which is really anti-music, is entirely tuneless – and it does not even have the saving grace of convincing rhythm. Amazingly, for a “music” supposedly based on African cultural origins, it does not swing. The only aspect of it that is even slightly interesting is the social commentary from rap performers when they talk about what they are doing.

So, what happened? Surely a memorable melody is what makes a song a commercial success. Why has the music “industry”, which claims to be based on a commercial logic, seemingly lost the ability to produce perhaps the most important part of its “product”? Memorable melodies get reproduced, and covered by other artists. This generates consistent royalties. So, surely it is good business to keep churning out the memorable melodies?

One reason is the disappearance of modulations in the writing: changing of the key. Bacharach and Jobim used sophisticated harmonies that included modulation and it is heavily used in the American song tradition.

Modulation is also a strong feature of The Beatles melodies. For example, the use of pivot notes in Penny Lane – which shift the melody brilliantly from the major key to the minor key – transforms what would sound like a trite ditty into a delicious musical excursion.

There is nothing especially challenging about modulations; they are a basic element of composition. So, why have they all but disappeared? The answer seems to lie in the heavy use of effects in digitally produced music. 

Recorded popular music is extensively treated with reverb, echo, various forms of aural “excitement”, automatic tuning. Then it is heavily compressed to remove the highs and lows of the music and turned into MP3s or MP4s, which further flattens out the sound.

These processes make the music sound superficially impressive, but it has the effect of removing the natural tension and release in the music. Everything becomes impressively bland.

Modulation is a way to create tension and release, so it tends to suffer from the effect of the technology. That is why modern cover versions of older songs so often seem to lack the original impact.

In such heavily treated music, another compositional technique tends to work much better: melodies that repeatedly use the same notes, with the chords shifting underneath them. That is overwhelmingly the method used in modern pop songs, which is why so much of it all sounds much the same.

If you want to hum melodies of that type to yourself, all you are left with is repeated, monotonous figures. It is why melody is indeed dead – or, at least, resting.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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