The Timbre Effect

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All melodies are the same. This provocative overstatement should not be dismissed out of hand. Although there are diversifying options, such as meter, mode, note density, and rhythmic values, the fundamental shape of melody is remarkably consistent. When the sonic fat is trimmed away, what remains is a typical melodic line. This mainly owes to the powerful force of convention, which (un)consciously shapes musical patterns in more or less uniform ways. Culturally conditioned ears tolerate only a limited spectrum of choices; the more divergences, the less the general appeal. At the risk of being tautological, melodies are recognizable because they sound like melodies.

Gary Ewer, a songwriter and creator of Easy Music Theory, identifies what he calls “5 Characteristics of Any Great Melody.” His summation is not as boastful as it might appear, though these key ingredients are found in most Western melodies, great and not-so-great. The five characteristics are: restricted range (an octave-and-a-half); repeating elements (intervals, rhythms, motifs); stepwise motion (moving by scale steps with occasional leaps); movement in relationship with the bass line (parallel, similar, oblique or contrary); and a climactic point leading to a cadence. Other building blocks not on Ewer’s list include four-bar phrases and predictable chord progressions (both simple and complex).

These ingredients are present in all idioms of Western music, from Baroque to reggae to bubblegum pop. Of course, some melodies are more adventurous than others, and some manage to buck a few norms while staying within the requisite parameters. Yet, without blurring the countless tunes that have been offered to the atmosphere, the fact is that differences between melodies lie in nuances rather than in fundamental structures.

Given this basic homogeneity, why do certain melodies rise to the top? The answer rests partly in extra-musical factors, such as lyrical content, the look of the performer(s), promotional efforts, and inclusion on a soundtrack. But musical qualities also contribute to a song’s popularity (or unpopularity). These aspects are not necessarily located in the pitch, dynamics or durations, but in the less tangible realm of timbre: distinctive and recognizable sounds.

This is particularly true of recorded songs, which reach audiences via specific timbre mixtures of vocals, instruments, and production signatures. Attraction to a song is really attraction to this global sound—a reality accounting for the frequent failure of covers and remixes. A Katy Perry song in someone else’s mouth does not have the same effect, just as Tom Petty minus the Heartbreakers lacks a certain something.

A historical case in point is The Paul Simon Song Book (1965), a solo album Simon recorded after Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, Simon & Garfunkel’s first studio recording, received a discouragingly cool reception. The record includes several songs that would become hits for the duo, such as “I Am A Rock,” “Leaves That Are Green,” and “The Sound of Silence.” But the timbre is off. Without Garfunkel’s harmonies and other additive sounds, the impression is one of raw incompletion.

Popular melodies sometimes find their way into song anthologies and fake books: collections of lead sheets with melodies, chord markings, and lyrics. These are “standards,” or tunes of established popularity from a period and/or style. The minimalistic presentation suggests that melody, apart from audible textures, is the source of a song’s popularity. However, the very reduction to soundless notation exposes the crucial role of timbre in creating hits. Without that tapestry of sounds, a melody is just a melody like any other.

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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