What’s the loveliest melody in the world?
Okay, I’m not actually proposing to name the most beautiful melody in the world – I’m not that arrogant or that dumb. 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.
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.
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. Many classic songs are founded on a catchy rhythm (Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”) or a striking chord progression (“All the Things You Are”). 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. 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. Texts and melodies are fluid, new words written for old tunes.
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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
In American popular music, the superstar of the middle decades of the last century was George Gershwin, who wrote his first hit, “Swanee,” in about 10 minutes at age 20, while riding a bus (or so he claimed). He went on to a long row of tremendous songs, and meanwhile taught himself to be a symphonic composer as well. In his short life the climax of that development was Porgy and Bess, the greatest American opera. Its most famous aria is, of course, “Summertime,” but the one that moves me most in this tale of a crippled beggar and his drug-addicted lover is “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” which is equally a true operatic aria at the service of the story, and a moving and unforgettable melody on its own.
Finally we arrive at modern pop music. One of the few examples in the last half-century of a popular standard in the traditional sense is Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.” Here’s a tuney tune par excellence. McCartney’s own original version is interestingly straight-ahead and a bit brisk in tempo, given its theme of lost love.
But what about my title, the most beautiful melody in the world? Actually, I have a definition of that vaporous entity: The most beautiful melody in the world is the one that at the moment you can’t get out of your head. Not in the sense of worming annoyingly into your mind, but rather of somehow capturing something important and moving to you in particular, which may or may not be something that moves the masses. For me, off and on for some time, it’s been a relatively obscure Yiddish song from 1911: “Mayn rue Plats,” which I find passionately, sadly, hauntingly beautiful. From the first time I heard it, I was transfixed. Like a haunting face, like love, that’s what a great melody can do for you.
Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include “Johannes Brahms: A Biography” and “Charles Ives: A Life With Music.”