The Rise and Fall of Melody

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music exhibits the human propensity to imitate nature and the delight we take in that imitation. Rhythm is a stylization of natural motion. Beating hearts, falling rain, rustling leaves, prancing animals and other organic patterns inspire rhythmic mimesis. Birdsong has influenced musicians throughout history, from indigenous folk singers to classical composers like Mahler and Messiaen. Harmonic dissonances and consonances are unconsciously sensed as simulations of human passions. Since the beginning, natural forces have molded and been woven into music’s very essence.

The bond between music and nature did not escape Italian Renaissance composer and music theorist Franchinus Gaffurius. A noted humanist and personal friend of Leonardo da Vinci, Gaffurius was keenly interested in how people derive musical sounds from their environment and utilize those sounds to achieve specific aims. Among his contributions to the naturalistic conception of music is the notion of “musical gravity,” which he introduced in his major treatise Practica musicae (1496): “A descent from high to low causes a greater sense of repose.” With this simple statement, Gaffurius encapsulated the instinct of tonal music to resolve in a cadence to the tonic, or first scale degree.

This movement is imitative in two important ways. First, the downward movement of the musical line resembles forces that regulate motion in the natural world. The descending pull reinforces our orientation toward the tonic and causes us to feel as though we have arrived at the ground level. Second, it simulates a sense of emotional resolution or closure. By bringing us back to the home or tonic note, melody gives a sensation of gratifying release.

Acknowledging the tendency of musical phrases to descend and rest at the tonic, composers of tonal music employ various methods to protract the time leading to the inevitable conclusion. What often results is a series of ascensions, which generate tension and energy, followed by the much-anticipated resolution, which bestows satisfaction proportional to the duration the listener has waited for it.

Music theorists since Aristotle have recognized tension as one of music’s fundamental properties. Like a coiled spring that is pushed and pulled, musical passages portray a cyclic dance, passing through increases and decreases in intensity on their way to a resting position. Human beings seem hardwired to perceive this musical interplay. We feel musical tension on a primal level, as if it were a visceral or kinesthetic experience. When musical suspense reaches its height, our muscles tighten, and with musical resolution, our muscles relax. Of course, no tone, interval, or harmony is intrinsically tense. The impression of tension stems from culturally derived expectations, which may differ from place to place. But, regardless of cultural variation, musical gravity almost universally wields its power on melodic structure, alleviating tension through downward movement.

The mutually reinforcing elements of musical gravity and tension and release go a long way toward explaining our affinity for melody. These forces are an imitation of nature, both in terms of mimicking the rise and fall of objects and in terms of replicating emotional life. Moreover, the usual melodic path toward repose appeases our longing for closure. Through a succession of notes, melody creates and resolves drama in a clean and logical manner that is a human ideal.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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