Why the melody isn’t the most important part of a song.
Welcome back to Mozart For Muggles, the series that explains classical music for people who just don’t “get” it. We keep things simple here. No jargon, no technical terms, and very little theory. Just lots of good music!
Let’s get started…
The melody is the most important part of the music, right? Indiana Jones! Taylor Swift! Beethoven! Start humming. The melody is the part you remember. It’s the hook. It’s the thing that gets stuck in your head. It’s the thing you sing when you’re driving down the road or chilling with your friends.
Musicians have a lot of inside jokes at the expense of the first violinists and trumpet players — the so-called divas and attention-hogs of the musical world. This joke came from the fact that the violins and trumpets more often have the melody in a piece of music than the other instruments in an ensemble.
The melody of a song is obviously important, but it’s just a tiny part of music as a whole. There’s a lot more going on in a song that just the vocalist or the soloist. And all that other stuff going on “behind the scenes” is what makes a piece of music so compelling and powerful. The background stuff is largely responsible for making the melody so memorable.
“This is a man’s world — but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl.”
The melody of a song gets all the love, all the attention, but it wouldn’t be nothin’ without the counter-melody, the harmony, the bass line, the accompaniment, et al. Let’s just jump in, I’ll show you why.
Quick note: when I use the word “accompaniment” in this article, I’m referring to everything in a song that isn’t the melody.
The accompaniment of a song establishes the mood. It has the ability change the mood — sometimes subtly and sometimes quite obviously. The accompaniment can make the song more or less. Let’s listen to this excerpt from Passo a Sei from William Tell by Rossini to see for ourselves.
Beautiful, right? Simple, yet still elegant and charming. Two minutes later in the piece, this melody is repeated. But the accompaniment changes. Take a look.
Still beautiful, but wow! Do you feel the energy? The excitement? The life??
So what’s changed in the music to make the mood shift? The melody’s gone up an octave and there are some new instruments playing it, but most of the changes have occurred in other places. Most noticeably, the cellos and other lower strings are going crazy! They sound like a hive of busy bees! And the horns are playing off-beats now (think “polka music”: m-bah! m-bah!), not the long, smooth notes from the earlier clip. The accompaniment is largely responsible for the change in mood. The melody itself hasn’t really changed. The notes are all the same.
Let’s listen to another example of accompaniment changing the mood of a piece. Listen to this excerpt from the first movement of Prokofiev’s String Quartet no. 2.
Sounds like a great finale! But the piece continues after this part for a while. Finally, the part repeats at the REAL end of the movement. But it’s changed. Listen:
Notice anything weird? Yeah, this time the theme is prolonged, making you feel like the piece is NEVER going to end (Haha, good one, Prokofiev! No one’s ever done that before! wink, wink, wink). And the key has changed. But let’s look a little closer.
In the accompaniment specifically, weird stuff is going on. Mainly, the second violin is playing that theme from the beginning of the movement!
What’s going on? The second violinist is playing something different! It’s pretty ugly too. If you can’t read music, check the audio below. This is what the highlighted part sounds like:
The second violinist plays this theme at 0:09. Go ahead and listen to the 2nd excerpt again, and pay attention. It’s startling. Jarring. And the theme gets passed around the quartet while the first violinist just keep screeching out those same notes. The melody doesn’t really change — but the accompaniment does. And it changes the whole feel of the piece at that point.
Another thing that changes in this second excerpt is the second violinist plays a tremolo at 0:23. If you don’t know what a tremolo is, see below:
Instead of the long, sustained notes that were played in the 1st excerpt, the second violinist plays that. Gross.
Bugs Bunny and Darth Maul… Driving the Melody Forward!
Sometimes the accompaniment’s job is to drive the melody forward. Try listening to the Barber of Seville Overture below, and don’t pay attention to the melody! Listen instead to “bum bum bum bum…” played by the cellos, violas, and basses, and follow it throughout the piece. Go on, listen for a bit.
It sounds like a metronome just beating out time. But that bum bum bum bum is (and sometimes digga digga) is what gives this piece its energy and mystique!
Even Star Wars knows what’s up. Wanna know what gives this music its drama? Okay, that big chorus certainly helps. But this is what I’m talking about:
That underlying “bum bum bunnuh nuh! bum bum bunnuh nuh!” is what really drives this music home. Like in Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, that riff is where the energy and mystery comes from.
Creating Completely …Different… Feelings
20th century music is some of my favorite because it stirs very different kinds of feelings in me than music from the other periods. The music from this century is colored by the reality that the composers were living in: that is, the World Wars and totalitarianism. So the feelings that the music from this century awake in you are very different, often foreign, and yet very powerful.
But the ways that composers create these feelings are the same as always. And one way that they created these strange feelings was by contrasting the accompaniment with the melody in some way. Let’s take a look.
We’ve talked about Dmitri Shostakovich a bit already, and he’s a pretty awesome guy so let’s give him some more attention! Here’s the 4th movement from Shostakovich’s 11th String Quartet (one of my most favorite pieces of music in existence — no offense, Beyonce!).
Listen to the whole thing (from 6:01–7:16 — a little over a minute!) and pay attention to the violin that starts off. Focus on how those ugly, irritating notes make you feel, and how they affect the rest of the music.
This movement as a whole unnerving, uncomfortable, full of distress. Those fast, irritating notes that the violin starts out with continue through the whole movement. But the first melody has a different character — it’s haunting, weeping. Try to imagine what that haunting melody would sound like without that squeaky violin. I put together an electronic sample to give you an idea:
Because these aren’t real strings playing, it changes the feeling of the music, but hopefully it’ll help you imagine what feeling the melody would invoke if it weren’t combined with that ugly violin!
So the violin by itself is ugly and irritating. The first melody by itself is haunting and desperate. What do you feel when you combine ugly, irritating, fast notes with a haunting, weeping melody? Distress.
Something else that’s worth noting is that the ugly, fast notes that the violin plays eventually get taken over by the cello at 6:52. This also changes the mood and feeling of the piece. The violin is high and squeaky, but the cello is deep and grounded. While the violin is playing these notes, the discomfort is all in your head and your emotions. When the cello takes over, it’s like the very foundations of your life are uncomfortable. The distress flushes through your body, from your head down into your belly, into your gut, into your feet. It’s inescapable at that moment. It’s unavoidable. It’s unshakable. And it’s not all in your head. It is reality.
It’s All About Teamwork
Making good music is about teamwork. The melody isn’t the most important part of a piece of music. What gives a song its color or mood is mostly in the hands of the accompaniment. Fast, driving notes underneath the melody can make the music more energetic. It can add mystery, create tension. Elongated, sustained notes create a different kind of atmosphere and a different kind of mystery.
When you’re listening to music of any kind (but especially classical music!), try to listen to what’s going on behind the scenes. Pay attention to the bass guitarist. Listen out for the violist and the french horn. The accompaniment is what gives a piece of music its power and makes it memorable. It’s pretty important!
Music listened to in this article:
- Passo a Sei from William Tell by Rossini
- String Quartet no. 2 by Prokofiev
- Barber of Seville Overture by Rossini
- Dual of Fates from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace by John Williams
- String Quartet no. 11 by Shostakovich
More music with interesting accompaniment you should check out:
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