Melody: they who codify, complicate (at key stage 4)

‘Melody is the essence of music’, apparently (cheers Wolfgang), but is music the essence of melody?  Not this one, I’d venture…


And if commercially successful ‘The Chainsmokers’ can’t be any more imaginative than that, what hope is there for their target audience: the teenage school students whose melodically inane compositions I have the privilege of despairing over year on year?  But alas, it’s not The Chainsmokers, but me (and others like me) who are probably to blame for the sorry state of such melodies.  “Just use notes that are in the chords”, we told them.  “Maybe add some passing notes every now and then”, we upwards-differentiated.

So, if not like this, then how to teach melody writing?  Drill them on the devices (sequence, inversion, augmentation…) and tick a box every time they use one?  Have them assimilate and replicate the classical style one concept at a time from the analytical models of Rosen and Caplin?  Hmm, doesn’t sound like fun…

The root of many of my difficulties in teaching composition is the juxtaposition of open creativity with the rigorous structure and prescription that we have all been trained to bring to every lesson.  The difficult truth is that learning through real musical activity isn’t easily paired with our profession-wide approach of dissecting skills into smaller and smaller units of ‘measurable progress’.  Music’s inaptitude for such a process is, for me, the very reason that the subject has a place in the school curriculum, and to attempt to teach composition well by such micro-formulaic means is, I fear, impossible. My conclusion is this: students must create before they dissect, not afterwards.  Theory is, after all, there to support our understanding of music, not the other way around.

A practical example of this approach might be to start away from harmony, and certainly away from notation, with the voice or an instrument.  Start by singing the first half of an already-composed melody and let students ‘finish’ it by instinct.  Afterwards, they might take satisfaction from noticing that they used sequences or returned from dominant to tonic, but the act of composition should feel intuitive.  Now try giving them an ending and asking for an opening, which is a little harder for some because they are not processing the form in the same way they would as a listener, but they are now thinking on a larger scale and making deliberate musical connections (skills that are difficult and time-consuming to teach through theory), whether they know it or not.

…you get the point.  I’m sure a thousand better practical examples could be given, but what I’m advocating, simply, is taking theory away to allow musicality to develop.  Theory can come back any time it likes, but the more one’s musicality develops, the less theory needs explicitly to be there.  I’m sure most of us teachers already advocate improvisation as a possible starting point for composition, but I doubt many of us leave room for it, less ‘teach’ it, in our lessons.  Yet, with enough practise and real investment in engaging with melody musically, students can get top marks in the melody criterion for their GCSE composition (which is what it’s all about, right?).  Plus: it’s way more fun this way.

For me, the GCSE composer need not tick so many boxes, but should be intuitively composing melodies that are ‘musical’, that ‘work’, whether easily theoretically explicable or not.  They are prepared for A-level and beyond because they are confident and musical when they compose.  Then is the time for theory.


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