It’s ironic how, in an era of music history where the most heard, consumed, and promoted songs contain the least amount of melodic range, those same diluted pieces can lead to some of the most in-depth analysis and theoretical discussion.
About two weeks back, popular classical / film music analysis YouTube channel, Inside the Score, published a video titled, “The Death of Melody.” Though a dramatic designation for the 13 minute but of discourse, the substance therein backed the titular impression quite well. Simultaneously, the video essay also raised a few points and thoughts that felt at the very least, debatable and at the very most, like a certain perspective might be missing? Thus, outside the realm of a typical comment section wall of text, here I offer some open and free-flowing thoughts in response – to which I encourage anyone to further reply to or expand upon if so desired. First of course, it would be beneficial for everyone to hear what the essay has to say:
Two thoughts that immediately jumped out about the critiques and observations in this video essay tackle the sentiments on film scores, modern classical structure, and the concept of “The Hook.” Where the essay addresses the connective decline of melody in film scores vis a vie examples by acclaimed composer Has Zimmer and the work he did for films like Interstellar, Inception, and Dunkirk, the impulse to react wasn’t hard to avoid. The latter film especially seemed out of place for highlighted identification, given that the film’s historical narrative was in fact so unrelentingly intense and the accompanying score strong enough to be nominated for several composition-centric awards, includes the Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. That said, it’s important to note that the eventual emphasis not necessarily on just the absence of melody but also recognizing that it’s a shift of compositional priority on what’s used to evoke emotion, means that the criticism of said aforementioned film scores isn’t as wrong as it might have initially felt.
Still, in the spirit of making observations that might be debatable but nonetheless true, with Dunkirk in particular, the less melodic approach of the core musical themes didn’t leave the score less memorable – at least for this viewer who was especially focused on the score throughout. Certainly the score was colored with lots of sonic effects – the crisp ticking being Dunkirk (as well as Interstellar’s) audible hallmark amidst any tonal pitches and organized musical phrases. Here the assessment of a lower prioritization on melody is absolutely accurate. And actually, the essay’s overall conclusion minimization of pitch transitions, complete musical phrases, and melodic flexibility is completely valid. However, when we start talking about the rise of focus on hooks in place of more complete musical phrases and the increased popularity of rhythmic speaking in place of pure singing (as in the case of the Taylor Swift example in “Look What You Made Me Do”), is there possibly a missing piece in the consideration of the bigger picture, in how all these facets of modern day music coexist?
Working backwards from the idea of hook-centric songwriting, we’re reminded that hooks are not the same as melodies, in light of their shorter, more “digestible” character over a longer and more flushed out musical phrases. Well, in the essay, it’s proposed that perhaps songwriting went this direction in connection with the current state of broader human communication. The way the world now communicates in limited bursts – expressing everything from hurried exclamations to complex reactions in a few hundred characters or less – could be having an impact on what we as a populace end up gravitating toward where our musical recreation is concerned. Past this similarity though, what about the effect on musical form? In the beginning of the essay, we are reminded of the elements of music and how melody can easily encapsulate the other three elements of rhythm, harmony, and tone color but not necessarily the other way around. Interestingly though, there’s no mention of musical form as an element of music or just as general factor of importance to songwriting.
Realizing this, I ponder whether not just the role of melody in songs is changing but if the role of musical form is getting downsized as well.
Think about the way much of pop’s older and more traditional repertoire was written. The Beatles are often cited as a rather ubiquitous example of globally familiar pop that was driven by melody. However, many of the hits from the Beatles early career, as well as so many hits across several decades, followed a recognized form: Intro (Hook), verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus, (outro). While yes, there are absolutely songs that don’t follow this format, (Folk music is especially fond of bucking this trend, with songs sometimes just being comprised solely of verses and feeling like singable poetry more than a conventional piece of music.) there’s a reasons fundamental songwriting courses can teach units based on song types of instill principles of “what makes a song, a song?”
And so, regardless of whether the broader shrinkage of communication influenced or led to the corresponding shrinkage of melodic concepts, if composers are feeling compelled to write these jingle-sized sonic bites and have them serve as the pillars of the “songs” they exist within, isn’t it inevitable that songs as a whole, their collective musical forms, suffer as well? After all, if the crux of a song is a two note hook that spans a total of five seconds over a phrase that breathes and spans several more notes over a full 30 second chorus, how much is a composer really working with to otherwise write around and construct things like instrumental interludes, contemplative verses, or emotionally competitive bridge sections? The hook becomes the selling point of a soon-to-be hit and with that as the focus, is there effort really put forth anywhere else? If the trend of a listener is to digest bite-sized musical segments, it would seem counter-intuitive to think that same listener would suddenly be more receptive to longer and more diverse musical ideas elsewhere in the song, when the chorus and the refrain are typically the most sought-after and easily remembered parts of a tune.
Think back to a few pop songs from just a handful of years ago and the idea that classic pop form is an afterthought starts to come into view. Anyone remember Echosmith’s mainstream breakout single, “Cool Kids” from 2013? The general structure goes like this: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, [chorus skeleton instrumental bridge], Chorus, Chorus, Chorus, Chorus.
Anyone who heard this song on the radio back when it flooded the FM Top 40 airwaves might feel like the song was dragging on and on and on because, it was. At a weirdly less-radio friendly four-minute run time, it seems cruel to take up more than average minutes while simultaneously giving listeners less to grasp. (We get it: you wish you could be like the cool kids.) Presuming spins at two plays an hour, eight hours a day, every day for weeks on end, that chorus hit ears hundreds and hundreds of times when it debuted. Even the catchiest mini bites of music can wear on a person at that level.
Funny enough though, now consider “Stay the Night,” the a radio hit by Zedd, featuring Paramore’s Hayley Williams, that was made in and popular during the same year: 2013. You might feel inclined to give the song a pass for any potential bite-sized repetition because Zedd isn’t traditionally identified as a pop songwriter but rather as an DJ of EDM, where cyclical phrases over several minutes is commonplace.
But isolate the song structure and look at what we’ve given: Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus. Chorus. How ironic that a collaborative track clearly made with dance club and remix potential in mind, actually boasts a form closer to traditional pop songs that a more streamlined pop rock band.
Then there’s an example like the X Ambassadors’ breakout hit, “Renegades.” Similar but even more surprising than the last two hit singles, “Renegades” is a song that openly was created by X Ambassadors with the ultimate objective of fulfilling a client request and branding need. That client: Jeep. The branding need: millennial drivers of the new Renegade. While the song wasn’t steered to Jeep from its inception, X Ambassadors ultimately crossed the finish line with the vehicle company’s advertising needs in mind. And yet, even a song like this, which was initially a major factor in branding more than sheer public consumption, runs along a mostly traditional song format of: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Verse, Chorus. The lyrics in “Renegades” are definitely on the simplistic side, with individual verse lines running an average of six total syllables in length but from a format perspective, despite being short, the lines do follow another staple of more traditional songwriting: AABB rhyme scheme – a thing of melody heavy pop songs of old.
Not all hope is lost though, despite the seemingly ever-shrinking pool of melodic depth and form width. Active and widely popular artists like Michael Bublé thrive on the form of the classic pop song, both in structure and melodic range. Just take a listen to one of his popular original singles, °It’s a Beautiful Day,” which is the farthest thing from minimal and sonically stagnant. The fact that a vocalist like Bublé has a discography boasting hit single after hit single or both vocal standard covers and originals, shows the art of fleshed out songwriting isn’t doomed to extinction.
Now, it might be easy to cast off Bublé as an anomaly because of his catalog’s load of older pop, soul, and jazz standards. But the same can’t be said for Ed Sheeran and his many melodic pop ballads. Sheeran, who has even more visible star power than Bublé and isn’t tied to older, classic repertoire, has written songs that too, follow conventional song form and expand and contract with a deep well of beautifully strung together notes that are hardly bite-sized in length or lyric but just as memorable. And it’s with this observation that I propose another reasons melodic is taking such a back seat is because artists like Sheeran and Buble, and the emotional settings for many of the more melodic and varied songs they both write, is what makes a crucial difference in the way a finished pop song looks and sounds nowadays. Sheeran, who I often refer to as the “maker of the annual wedding anthem,” gets quite melodic, lyrically descriptive, and plain lengthy with the songs that couples everywhere came to select as their first dance numbers with their partners. And for a good portion of Bublé’s catalog as well, his musical fare can easily slip into any wedding, more formal dance, or the like too.
In either case, what’s different from the love-centric narratives of today’s more minimal pop songs? The intended life span. While humans have long valued music for its mnemonic and sentimental power in our everyday lives, for swaths of the songs that get released every Friday, the music we download that week will likely be swapped out in favor of the rush for new material the following week. But for one’s wedding, graduation, 16th birthday, retirement party? Those are the kinds of moments that we tend to remember and want to savor long. So even though there might be hundreds of phones around capturing bite-sized and hook sized snippets of these joyous events in our lives, for those picking the soundtracks to such moments, the event in its entirety will matter, not just the 10 seconds of the “big moment” when the background song’s hook is playing underneath the big moment. This is where we come full circle back to the main takeaway point in “The Death of Melody.” Melody isn’t the driver of emotions in many songs nowadays and the replacement element of rhythm as the central driver does work when put in the context of day-to-day life that’s often busy and doesn’t turn off once we leave the office. But despite the best efforts of work-life balance destroyers everywhere, not every moment in life is one to just be “rushed past” and that’s when and where we can be reminded that even in character limited, social-media-obsessed 2019, people so still love an emotive and patient melody with slow burning musical pay off. To a degree this is sad as alluded to in the essay but in a way melodically driven songs can now be seen as things to be cherished all the more for their more sparse appearances in today’s world.