Is there a way, mathematically, to decipher which of the millions of melodies is the most melodious? I wondered this about twenty years ago, even to the point where I started studying maths in the hope I could make a breakthrough. In the end I could only work out the variables that would be needed:
average notes per phrase,
length of phrase (in bars)
pitch range (in semitones)
number of phrases per melody
number of accidentals
Really for me it was an impossible task (what with not even taking into account harmony and timbre) but I was trying to take away some of the frustrating subjectiveness that is found in music. If I were to hazard a guess as to what melodies would be up there as the most tuneful then something by Tchaikovsky or the Beatles. People would still disagree even if the maths were watertight. Yet no one says things like ‘I don’t like the height of Everest’.
Note only would a mathematical equation make the subject objective it may even be able to predict even more tuneful melodies, stuff that has never been written. You could even reach a point where you have the most tuneful tune possible. Music is mathematical in that it follows patterns but is probably too non-linear to write down a happy equation, otherwise it would already been done. Yet saying that, I do get the feeling sometimes that modern pop music is composed by a machine or a software package rather than a human doing it. Could it be that we are running out of tunes hence why older ones are getting recycled more often? Every so often you get one catchy tune but they are getting further and further apart.
Music is simply three chords (tonic, dominant, subdominant) with forays into the relative minor every now and then. It could finally be argued that music is simpler than we think.
I am not talking about hymns here, but music written by composers whom traditionally write secular music. At the moment I am listening to Mozart’s Requiem Mass that just about killed him and remained unfinished in his lifetime. Yet I am not religious in any sense but this genre of music can be just as good in quality if not better then some secular compositions. Personally I am not listening to the words, being an atheist they mean nothing to me anyway. But the music can be sublime and some of my favourites include Dvorak’s requiem, JS Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion and the Mozart mentioned above.
Many composers in the 18th and 19th Century were deeply religious (it is easier to name the atheists: Brahms and Tchaikovsky.) Yet not one, to the best of my knowledge wrote a ‘God’ symphony or a Jesus Sonata. Secularism played a big part in the shaping of classical music even if the various composers were devout. Surprising that it was even allowed. For me, the perfect cross over from secular to religious is Brahms’s German Requiem. It is a requiem for people, not God. And it is deeply moving in character and depth of feeling. Which is strange because according to Dvorak Brahms ‘believes in nothing!’. I think that is why I like Brahms.
Listening to Tchaikovsky’s symphonic oeuvre I wonder as to why it moves me. What is in it that causes emotional stirrings? Not just Tchaikovsky, it can be any music; is it melody, harmony, timbre, contrast? I think it is combination of all those factors but especially contrast; sturm and drang maybe. Storm and stress; roughly translated. It is all very well having a great melody in a nice major key such as A major but it takes a true craftsperson to switch that to say C minor in a bar or two. But it has to be done cleverly and usually takes a genius to do it. Some composers may opt for a quick sudden switch, shock value if you will. Tchaikovsky does that well. Others are more subtle like Bruckner.
A pretty melody can IMO get boring after a while so harmony is instigated to liven the music up somewhat. This can play out well if you have an orchestra at your disposal but writing for the piano and the piano only takes a real skill and where contrast comes into play. You only have the one timbre to play with and a couple of pedals but such a beautiful instrument in the right hands can yield the most amazing results. Beethoven’s piano sonatas spring immediately to mind; each one a testament of how to compose for such a contraption. Chopin and Liszt illuminate the apparatus as if they have sent 1000 volts of electricity through their fingers. Yet it is simple.
Lightness and darkness, or darkness and light, hope and despair. Have your pretty melody by all means, but it means nothing if you cannot counter it with a powerful minor key 2nd subject or development section. This is what attaches this art form to the human psyche. I suppose music has to be bipolar to have any meaning. Or maybe it is just me. I like complicated music, I like a lot going on and seeing how much a composer can get out of an instrument. Take Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata; the opening theme is so utterly depressing yet grippingly awe-inspiring at the same time. And musically it is simple, but as the piece progresses it gets more and more complicated without losing its simplicity. Only Beethoven can do that. The 2nd subject offers some relief yet soon turns back to misery before it has the chance to develop in a positive fashion. Was Beethoven conscious of what he was doing? Did he plan it or did his mind just plop it onto the manuscript without a thought?
Music is littered with countless examples of contrast and they are usually the masterpieces. But it is only music, is it important? What is one meant to feel after listening to a masterpiece? Press replay, maybe and go through it again. Do that for a lifetime and what have you achieved. You will have connected with something that is sublime and unforgettable.