I keep chuckle on the following picture.
Let’s imagine there is this situation in the future – some 70 years from now: a music therapist meets with a new client, who is an old lady with dementia. She doesn’t know much about the world around her, as her 89-years old brain doesn’t function as it used to before. She doesn’t recognize even her close family members and is lethargic.
But the therapist knows, that she still reacts to music interventions, as happens quite often with clients like this, especially if they listen to music from their young years. The challenge is to find out, which type of music could invigorate this old body and mind. Based on her age, she was still a teenager in the year 2020.
So the therapist pulls from the internet a music chart from that era and plays a few songs from long forgotten artists with names like Justin Bieber, Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga. But the old lady keeps staring on the ceiling, her eyes completely empty.
“Maybe even music lost its power here?” thinks the therapist. But she doesn’t give up easily and keeps trying different songs and different genres.
Suddenly, with one song – there is a visible change. The old lady starts moving her legs to the beat of the song, her eyes lighten up. Then she stands up and continues moving to the rhythm. She is dancing!
And suddenly she opens her mouth and, to an utmost consternation of the therapist, she starts recite the lyrics alongside the singer:
WARNING! Offending lyrics to follow …
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, you fucking with some wet ass pussy
Bring a bucket and a mop for this wet ass pussy
Give me everything you got for this wet ass pussy
(Sorry for the language.)
But isn’t this scenario ridiculous?
And, at the same time, is this scenario possible, given how the music therapy works, and more importantly – given the current state of the ‘popular music’?
I dare to say ‘Yes’ to both of these questions.
You may not agree with me here, but my main point is elsewhere, as you can understand from the title of this post. Is a music melody dead?
If you follow not only the current popular music, of which the above example is (regretfully) a suitable example , but also other ‘new music’ genres, you may get such an impression. A melody is on its way out…!
Or is it?
And how important is the melodic variability and ‘robustness’ for the music perception. And more importantly, how important it is for potential health benefits of music therapy interventions, like the one described at the beginning of this post? Or to ask this plainly – can the currently popular rap music have comparable benefits on listeners in the future, as has had a more melodic music on older patients right now?
Too many questions to which just the time will reveal answers.
Although when I found a YouTube video called The Death Of Melody, I realized, that there are more people who have a similar impression about the status of a melody in the contemporary music development. The Inside the Score YouTube channel’s creator Oscar analyzes in this video how melody is disappearing from the popular, but also the classical and film music. It looks like a melody gets replaced by a strong rhythm, sound design, and … profanities.
But when we delve more into the history of the Western music, we can find out, that various attempts to suppress a melody date more than hundreds years back. As one example for all of them, you can read what the Italian artist Luigi Russolo had written in 1913 in his futurist manifesto The Art of Noise:
We must break at all cost from this restrictive circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds.
There is an interesting article on this topic written by Yuval Shrem, titled Where Did The Melody Go?. The author goes through a brief history of music in relation to a melody. The problem is, that he falls into a very common trap, when describing music older than about one thousand years. It is a simplification to write about the beginning of music as only a rhythm, with no melody and no harmony. And then he jumps straight to religious chants. There the oldest documented song The Hurrian Hymn is some 3.400 years old.
But what had happened before, for hundreds of thousands of years of the human development? We don’t know! Was it really rhythm with which all has started? Just because it is so simple to bang on some piece of wood and produce some sound – and potentially a rhythm? Look in a mirror and even more readily available and simpler ‘music instrument’ we have right under our nose. Majority of higher animals (mammals in particular) if they produce any sound, it is through their mouth cavity. Why would the human animal be any different?
The earliest preserved musical instrument made by the Homo sapiens, estimated to be 43,000 years old, is a bone flute, found in Hohle Fels/Germany. Even older is the 60.000 years old another bone flute from Divje Babe in Slovenia, made by Neanderthals.
I find it quite interesting, that all three oldest artefacts relate primarily to a melody and not that much to a rhythm.
If interested, there are two relatively recent books about the origins of music, that I would recommend. The first The Prehistory of Music: Human Evolution, Archaeology, and the Origins of Musicality is from a palaeoanthropoligist Iain Morley. The other A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity is from a musicologist Gary Tomlinson.
Now let’s get back to the present, to answer the question from the heading.
I don’t think that a melody is dead or that it is going extinct. I would agree with those who say, that it is a predominantly fashion, what impacts the current state of music. Everything is evolving, creators push boundaries, try new approaches, and thus try to emphasize other aspects of music – like rhythm, sound, timbre and so on.
For example we can argue whether the famous three-movement composition 4’33” by American composer John Cage is really music, because the score instructs performers not to play their instruments during the entire duration of the piece. But if the rest symbols, and the silence they represent, are integral part of music, then brought to the extreme by one composer is an interesting statement. That doesn’t mean that many can repeat this approach successfully. The copyright law wouldn’t let them to protect silence … maybe?
There are other aspects that may have negative impact on younger generations and their ability to perceive music and primarily melody. First is the education, or the lack thereof. A few decades ago teachers especially working with the youngest children, were required to sing and play a musical instrument. Apparently not anymore!
My children haven’t learned almost any songs at school or kindergarten, and haven’t been taught to stand up and sing with their classmates. In my family we have mitigated this critical omission with a home tutoring and singing together regularly, and the benefits are showing up already. But admittedly, in regard to music, my family is not typical at all, as I am a musician and musicologist.
On the other hand, if a majority of the population has been deprived of even the basic active music experience and education, the result is a rapidly diminishing attention and ability to perceive music melody. I am absolutely convinced, that music as we know it wouldn’t survive to these days, if it would be perpetuated only by the listening and not by an active participation.
My impression is, that the current disappearance of a melody is simply a fad. That music creators temporarily focus on other elements of music like a rhythm or a sonic texture, maybe because it is easier and also because the modern sound technology and computers are ideal for that. There is no computer that can produce a good melody … yet.
Talking about computers – maybe the disappearance of a melody is an indicator of an upcoming new era, when the computer-generated music can ’triumphantly walk on the stage’? Computers now are powerful enough to give everyone a possibility to tweak and adjust music they could generate – and thus to create it anew every time it is being produced. It is music produced by a machine, but with an input from its human co-creator.
For me the computer-generated music is just another step in the direction to a more passive music consumption. I like to see the current stage as the preparation period for the melody to bounce back in a new unexpected way, with computers as another instrument and tool.
Maybe this ‘melody-less’ stage is just the lowest common denominator – a ‘hand’ offered from the melodically depleted professional side of the music industry to the audience with a simple message:
You can do this as well! Each one of you can exercise your free will to the fullest – and start making music yourself, for your own benefits. It cannot be any simpler than this!
What do you think? Are you ready to grab that tin whistle or ukulele and make your own music? Make your own melody?