Facsinating Melody

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They say that if you lose one of your senses, your others increase in acuity to compensate: you become better at hearing if you lose your sight, for instance. It has seemed to me that as remote rehearsing strips out our capacity to operate harmonically, our awareness and appreciation of melody has blossomed to fill the aesthetic gap.

To be fair, I was always a sucker for a good tune, and had I been able to go and work with Fascinating Rhythm in person on Thursday, we probably would have spent a lot of our time thinking about melody anyway, given the character of the music we were dealing with . But I was particularly glad that the song they had asked me to arrange for them last autumn* that we explored together is so profoundly melodic, as it gives them the opportunity to reach much of what the heart of the music is about, even while they are stuck in their Zoom rooms.

The first melodic idea we explored was that of compound melody. This is where a tune has more than one line going on at the same time. It often looks like it is characterised by leaps, as it hops from one line to another, but the point about it is the continuity across the leaps. (There’s a nice illustration of the idea in this video.)

Their song is a classic example of this. It’s in a standard AABA song form, and in the A sections, the lower line of the melody is quite complete, starting in the middle of the voice and moving downwards by step throughout the phrase. The upper line is more fragmentary, starting off in a parallel motion, but disappearing partway through the phrase; in the arrangement I have tucked it back into the tenor line to stop it unravelling.

In the bridge, it is the upper line that is much more complete, tracing a long arc that starts in a higher register and connects it back down to the middle to start the reprise. Here it is the lower line that is less developed.

The question came: do we need to do anything in particular with these two lines, now we know they’re there, or is just knowing it enough? (This lot do ask good questions you know.) My answer was that it is probably more the latter: if your inner is focusing on the linear continuity, your voice will follow to make the connections. The key thing is not to make it all about the leaps between the two lines: they are points of interest, of course, but only within the bigger story of the longer double arcs.

The second idea we explored was the relationship between contour and delivery, and in particular the uses of conjunct motion in the harmony parts. It is a general rule, that leaps draw attention to themselves, while stepwise motion smooth the music out, put it on rollers. The harmonic progressions of this song had given myriad opportunities for flowing stepwise lines in the harmony parts, and a fun breakout activity was to go through and find them.

Once we knew where they were, it was time to consider what they might suggest for shaping of phrases. Questions to consider included:

  • How long does the conjunct passage go on?
  • Is it rising or falling?
  • Does it change of direction?
  • Relative speed of notes?

The point about this kind of musical interrogation is that it brings together both analysis and intuition. Shaping a phrase is something that needs to be done by feel; it is gestural, it needs singing in different ways and playing with to explore what feels natural and meaningful. But clearly not all stepwise passages are built alike, so the analytical questions serve to draw attention to the individual character of different phrases, and to give a vocabulary to negotiate when different people feel their way through them differently.

* As ever, I’m not going to tell you what that is until they choose the manner of presenting it to the world.

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