The Most Beautiful Melody in the World: Is it by Bach? Gershwin? The Beatles?

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 30 2013 12:10 PM

The Most Beautiful Melody in the World

You know it when you hear it.

George Gershwin.
George Gershwin: He had rhythm, he had music, he had melody.

Courtesy of Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress

OK, I'm not actually proposing to name the most beautiful melody in the world—I'm not that arrogant or that dumb (though I do have some thoughts on the matter, which I’ll share below). For now, I want to offer a small tour of some of the most beautiful and enduring melodies I happen to know, and talk about what makes them that way. Will we thereby find the eternal secret of great melody? Well, no. But it's one of those questions that can get you somewhere if you don't take it too seriously.

First, naturally, we have to define what a melody is. It's … oh jeez. All right, let's turn to the authoritative Grove Dictionary of Music: "Melody, defined as pitched sounds arranged in musical time in accordance with given cultural conventions and constraints, represents a universal human phenomenon. … While the exact causal relationships between melody and language remain to be established, the broad cultural bases of ‘logogenic melody’ are no longer in question." Um, moving right along ...

The venerable Harvard Dictionary of Music is more slippery, and maybe for that reason more convincing: "A coherent succession of pitches. Here pitch means a stretch of sound whose frequency is clear and stable … succession means that several pitches occur; and coherent means that the succession of pitches is accepted as belonging together." In other words, a succession of notes that sounds to you like a tune is a tune. As goofy as that is, I can't think of anything better, because we're dealing with an exquisitely subjective and mysterious phenomenon, one universal yet elusive, like love and God and other enigmas. You know it when you hear it—according to how you’ve been conditioned by your culture and experience to hear it.

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This means that the next person's idea of a tune may not be yours. We musicians know all about this. Somebody once congratulated Debussy for transcending melody, and he retorted in outrage that his music was nothing but melody. Both Beethoven and Brahms were accused of having no melody; so has modern jazz. When I hear some traditional African songs, I enjoy them but can't figure out how they remember them. The same goes for a good number of pop tunes.

Each culture has its own sense of melody, one that often seems peculiar to the next culture. Some early Japanese tourists in the West had to be carried out of opera performances, they were laughing so hard. Westerners often struggle when listening to traditional Japanese singing, which tends on first acquaintance to sound a bit constipational. (Some of these mutual strangenesses have to do with vocal style, of course.)

With time and experience, new kinds of melody can become coherent. I had to learn how to listen to Schoenberg's themes, but now his music sounds fairly tuney to me, and ditto Bartók. I'm far from claiming, though, that strong melodies are necessary to a piece. Some of the most beautiful music I know is not based on melody at all; rather, the effect comes from mood, harmony, rhythm, color, and how those things on their own can reach the heartstrings.

I'm going to focus here on Western melodies, ones of a particular kind. People tend to call everything a "song" these days, even a symphony, but there are all kinds of songs, and not all of them have melody. On the whole, rock 'n' roll is not a particularly tuneful genre. I'm fond of the Beatles' "Come Together," for example, but its "tune" mostly jogs in place on three notes, with a little flight at the end of the phrase. What makes that song work is its sound, its atmosphere, its distinctive loping rhythm, its surreal words: "Here come old flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly, he got juju eyeball, he one holy roller …" Many classic songs are founded on a catchy rhythm (Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm") or a striking chord progression ("All the Things You Are"). Dylan's sublime "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is a pitchless chant, as is a good deal of rap. Most of the time, symphonic themes are not particularly tuney, because they are made to unfold and develop over a long haul. As we'll see, though, in classical pieces there are notable exceptions to that rule.

The tunes I mainly want to talk about are ones you might whistle in the shower or sing around a campfire: melodies that have a kind of independent there-ness on their own, often memorable and distinctive even without accompaniment. I'll start with one of my favorite traditional American songs, "Wildwood Flower." It was the Bluegrass group Flatt & Scruggs' theme song, Joan Baez did a fine version, and it was made famous mainly by the Carter Family, which is performing it here. Supposedly folk songs are a spontaneous product of folks, not written by any one person, but that's partly myth: Like "Wildwood Flower," a lot of them were first composed by professionals, then evolved through the generations. (At least, they evolved before recordings, which tend to fix any piece into a standard form.) Texts and melodies are fluid, new words written for old tunes.

A successful tune needs to be "coherent." What makes a tune coherent? That too is an elusive matter, but there are some things that can be identified: A memorable tune has some consistent motifs and a satisfying shape. The most obvious motif in "Wildwood Flower" is rhythmic: the dum dee-dee dum dee-dee that starts at the beginning and goes throughout. The main melodic motif is a three-note bit of descending or ascending scale that happens some dozen times in the tune, starting with its first three notes. As to the shape, this one has mostly the stepwise rise and fall of typical folk songs; it rises quickly to the fifth degree of the scale and drifts back down. For me the glory of the tune is what happens in the middle: an exhilarating leap up to its highest note that in every verse nicely underlines the words at that point ("and the myrtle so bright"). Then it sinks back down in an echo of the beginning.

We find the same kind of thing in what may be the oldest extant hit song in the West, the 16th-century "Greensleeves," here done in a capella style by the King's Singers. There's an old legend that this was written by King Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn. It wasn't. The subject may be a prostitute, or not. The author is perhaps one Richard Jones, and in its first year (1580) there were half a dozen versions in print. Shakespeare mentions it in The Merry Wives of Windsor. More recent incarnations have included the sighing orchestral variations by Ralph Vaughan Williams and the melody of Jacques Brel's acid "Amsterdam." In the 1950s a straightforward version was a hit single alongside Elvis songs.

The engine of "Greensleeves" is the steady lilting rhythm in the style of the time's romanesca. It's got an A idea of two lines and a B idea likewise. The main melodic motifs are a four-note bit of scale that goes up and down throughout, and three notes descending a chord. The tune has an especially elegant, rolling contour, highlighted by the passionate and climactic B idea ("Greensleeves was all my joy") that starts on the melody's highest note.

So there's a tune that has been embraced by millions for going on over 400 years and counting. I'm not saying that all great tunes get to the point of being what we call "standards," and hardly were all of them written by well-known composers. One of the most famous "Haydn" tunes is the F major Serenade for string quartet. Except it isn't by Haydn, but by the largely forgotten Roman Hofstetter, who passed it off as Haydn's. It used to be a theme song of TV comedian Ernie Kovacs.

Being a tunesmith, a crafter of catchy melodies, is a distinctive and rare kind of musical talent. A good tune happens to you; you can refine it, but in the end it can't be created by work or by will. Schubert and Mozart had the gift in spades, Beethoven less so, and there was not much Beethoven could do about it (though he wrote his share of splendid tunes). This also reveals that you don't have to be a tunesmith to be a great classical composer. Lots of Beethoven does perfectly well without striking themes, and sometimes in his instrumental music Schubert's pretty, self-contained tunes get in the way of the ongoing musical dialogue.

The early-Baroque master Claudio Monteverdi was a fine tunesmith when he needed to be, and one of his most stunning moments appears to be the final love duet in his opera The Coronation of Poppea. In fact, while most of the opera is unquestionably Monteverdi, this stunner “Pur ti miro” may be a contribution by some anonymous composer in a moment of high inspiration, with or without Monteverdi's approval. In any case, the duet provides a ravishing and incomparably cynical finish for the story of Nero, who put aside his wife, condemned his mentor Seneca, and crowned the prostitute Poppea his Empress of Rome.

The myriad glories of J.S. Bach's music tend to obscure what a terrific tunesmith he was. He could come up with both grand themes and little tunes that sound artless but aren't. For an example of the latter, there's his all too famous but still lovely "Sheep May Safely Graze," in which he begins with a lilting pastoral melody of his own, moves to a traditional Lutheran hymn, then combines the two in effortless counterpoint. It's been regularly arranged for various ensembles, but this is the original version. Bach's epic St. Matthew Passion paints the death of Christ as a universal story of love, loss, and grieving. Here's an aria from that passion, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.” What gives this aria about love and loss a place in my heart is a warmth and tenderness in the melody that is as secular as sacred, and its heart-tugging hook on the line Ich will Jesum selbst begraben—"I will myself bury Jesus."

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