Play the Melody

Sunday, 18. June 2017 4:19 PM

Whilst sitting in the trumpet section of a symphonic wind band last summer, I realized that not a single player in this whole ensemble was playing chords!

Every player, and there were over 100 of them, was playing a single line, a melody. Yes, some of them were playing the same notes as others, playing in unison, but single line melody, nonetheless. After further thought, I realized that the same situation applies in every major musical ensemble; symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, chamber group.

Nobody plays harmony - everybody plays melodyThe same occurs in vocal groups. Nobody, apart from Tibetan Chant Singers, sings chords. Everybody sings (their own) melody.

Yes, of course ensemble music contains harmony and tonality. But harmony and tonality are the result of the simultaneous playing of different melodies.

Rather than regarding accompaniment parts as being driven by the underlying harmony, let us think about how it is the note selection in accompanying melodies that defines the harmony. The notes of one melody put pressure on (dissonance) the notes of another simultaneous one to force that other melody to move towards a release of pressure (consonance).

There was a distinct change in the development of music at the beginning of the twentieth century. Music changed from being melody dominant to harmony dominant. Neither twentieth century classical music, with its emphasis on harmonic structure, nor post swing-era jazz music based solely on chord sequences, have the intrinsic beauty of the extended melodic line found in both Romantic music and “Tin Pan Alley”. 

This change could have been be the reason for the upsurge of ersatz classical themes; the rise in popularity of the mainly British style of “light” orchestral music especially between 1920-1960. This music has, in turn, has strongly influenced the development of incidental and theme music for radio and television programs, and, of course, movie themes and soundtracks.

When we encourage alto singers to sing their often very boring, monotonous part as if it were the melody, they feel more empowered and the choir sounds much more alive. As trumpet players, single line instrumentalists, we can do the same, and help raise the music to a much higher level.