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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford


One of the greatest musical curiosities is the apparently endless supply of tunes, and the greatest mystery is what makes just a few of the millions of possibilities either memorable or extraordinarily potent -- and often both. Americans may regard the word 'tune' as a popular or vernacular term, perhaps deriving their understanding of it from German tradition in which teachers would no doubt have been delighted to find a word that distinguished 'tune' from 'melody' as the English do. I regard a tune as being a highlighted melody, one that takes a dominant role over any form of accompanying material, whereas a melody is any line of single notes with a clearly defined contour, as might also be the components of an Italian motet or an instrumental fugue by Bach.

The mystery of a tune is that there seems no reason why one should be an astonishing experience and a great many others remain unremarkable, despite their apparently correct academic construction. Following rules guarantees nothing. To suggest varied rhythmic units does not explain the magic of plainsong, the rhythmic uniformity of the oboe in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony or the repetitions of Schubert's 5th. There seems no reason why Beethoven's 5th Symphony should open with such an absence of tune and yet be so powerfully memorable, or Strauss' Don Quixote, so full of tunes yet so difficult to recall. There should be a textbook to explain the secret of how tunes like those by Irving Berlin or Cole Porter are made and how to create more extended tunes as inspired Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet theme or the closing of the 2nd Symphony by Sibelius.

Memorable tunes, though not necessarily great, might be helped by their repeated playing, as seems to work in the short term for pop music. Fortunate it is if a composer recognises the prospective potential of a tune and arranges for its frequent reiteration throughout an extended piece or, better still, an opera, musical or ballet. Sadly for Bizet the highlight tune in The Pearl Fishers is the only good thing about the opera -- but what a good thing!

Even in folk-singing communities there are favourites among those falling pentatonic tunes, yet the reasons for this seem to remain illusive -- and folk songs are the nearest we come to creating tunes by committee, for they have no composer and change in detail constantly whilst remaining essentially the same.

During his folk song collecting in 1904 Vaughan Williams asked one of his sources, old Mr Pottifer from Essex, where the tunes originated. 'If you can once get the words, the Almighty sends you the tune' was the reply. Despite all the learned support, perhaps we should just accept a higher guiding hand -- unfashionable as that concept may now be!

Copyright © 6 December 2007 Patric Standford, Wakefield UK


From: Bryn Zander, Canada
Hey Patric, I agree with lots of this, but your tune and melody definitions are really rarefied composery art music ones ... ask a John Doe on the sidewalk and you'll get a very different reaction!

My theory is that whole thing is subjective, and based on factors like repeats, context, textual labelling, history, and how easy it is to memorize any particular tune.




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