Music in Our World: Vocal Melody
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Vocal Melody Introduction
Read Chapter 6 (attached)
A melody is what we sing or hum, the main focal point of a song. For example, if you hum Happy Birthday (without the words), you are vocalizing the pitches of the melody. In order to have a melody, the pitches need to be definite (as opposed to indefinite, such as a cymbal or many drums) (see pg. 212 MIOW).
One can talk about the range of a melody, the highest and lowest pitches within it, and whether a melody has a large range or a small range. Vocal melodies often have a smaller range than a melody written for an instrument, because the range of an instrument, such as a piano, is greater (contains more octaves) and therefore can accommodate a melody with a greater range of pitches.
A MELODY is an organized succession of pitches that form a coherent whole and is made up of phrases. A PHRASE is a complete musical thought or sentence. Remember that at the end of a phrase, there is a cadence, or natural “period“ that punctuates the end of the phrase and makes it feel conclusive. A cadence resolves any tension created in the phrase. The “you” pitch at the end of Happy Birthday (remember our discussion of tonality in Unit 1) is the tonic or root of our key, and serves as a melodic cadence.
If the phrases in a song are all the same length (same number of beats or measures), one can describe the phrases as BALANCED or regular. In contrast, if the phrases are not all the same length, they are called UNBALANCED or irregular. Simple Gifts, MIOW CD 1 track 2, is an example of balanced phrases. All are the same length, 8 bars/measures with 4 bar 1/2 phrases.
If the sequence of pitches in a melody is smooth and stepwise, it is called CONJUNCT. If there are many large leaps or large intervals between successive pitches, it is called DISJUNCT. Typically, vocal melodies tend to be more conjunct than instrumental melodies, because an instrument can usually negotiate large leaps more easily than a voice. But this is not a hard and fast rule, as we will see.
Melody – Activity #1
Listen to the Gregorian chant video (on youtube) below and notice how conjunct the melody is. If you sing/hum along you will notice how smooth and stepwise it is. You can also follow along with the words and see the contour of the melody above. This was the way Gregorian chant was first written, eventually evolving into our present day musical notation system.
Melody – Activity #2
Now try and sing the Star Spangled Banner (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qZe8aB7plU) for yourself. Notice how big the jumps are in this song. You can feel it in your vocal cords. The adjustment between notes is large. It is very disjunct, and that’s one of the reasons it is pretty difficult to sing for the average person.
In vocal melodies, we can describe the text setting, or how the words are put to the music. If for every syllable there is only one note, it is called syllabic. If there are many notes per syllable, it is called melismatic. If the melody has just a couple of notes per syllable, or is a mixture of syllabic and melismatic, it is called neumatic.
As you watch the following video of Take 6 singing The Star Spangled Banner, you will see that it is mostly syllabic for the first 2 verses (except with the word “gleaming” at end of 1st verse, and “streaming” at end of 2nd verse where they ornament a bit and technically is neumatic). With the 3rd verse, they treat some of the syllables neumatically, adding ornamental slides between pitches to embellish the melody. In particular check out the words “banner yet wave”, which has neumatic text treatment and chromatic harmony. The texture starts off monophonic (first time in unison, 2nd time sung with addition of lower octave). The 3rd verse becomes homophonic with the addition of rich harmonies.
Click on the following link to listen to Simple Gifts. What is the text setting? (can be found on youtube)
Simple Gifts, is syllabic. For each syllable of text, there is only one pitch.
Now sing Happy Birthday. What is the text setting?
Happy Birthday is also sung syllabically.
Melody – Activity #3
Listen to the youtube Gregorian chant clip again, you will find it is syllabic in places and neumatic in others. When they are singing one syllable of text while moving through a couple of pitches/notes, it is neumatic. If you follow the musical notation you can see when there is only one note (each square is a separate note on the page) per syllable (syllabic) and where there are multiple notes (neumatic) over other syllables.
Melody – Activity #4
This next video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Br_uUHccEec) shows clips of Mariah Carey singing many pitches over one syllable. These melismas, in common language, are described as runs or riffs.
Melody – Activity #5 (video on youtube)
Click on the link below and listen at :21 seconds, tothe first chorus of Exodus by Bob Marley
There is syllabic text setting (“Exodus, movement by Jah people”) by the backup vocals, while Bob Marley does a melismatic fill, singing “Oh” over several pitches.
Text setting can determine whether we clearly understand the lyrics of a song or not. When a composer deems the understanding of the lyrics to be important, they tend to be treated syllabically. Words that are repeated over and over might be treated melismatically as their meaning is commonly understood. Christe, or Christ, in the above melismatic youtube clip is understood by everyone and therefore the composer chose to elaborate the melody while repeating the lyric to glorify the words and the message.
Melody – Activity #6 (video on youtube)
As we listen for melody in vocal songs, text setting is another way to further describe/analyze the music.
Read analysis pg. 116-118
→Meter? Does it have a clear meter? Subdivisions? Syncopation?
→Texture? Which instruments do you here? Is there a melody? Is there accompaniment? Is there antiphony? What kind of texture do you hear?
Instrumentation? Which instruments do you hear?
Phrasing? Are there phrases that repeat? Are they balanced or unbalanced? How would you describe the phrases?
→Melodic Characteristics? Describe the melody. Conjunct or disjunct? Large or small range? Text setting? How does it compare with other melodies we’ve heard?
→Form? Are there sections? What delineates the sections? Do they repeat?
Click on the link below to listen to De Sancta Maria
Thinking about melodic characteristics, can you give any examples of conjunct or disjunct melodies from musical examples you’ve heard? What about syllabic vs. melismatic text setting? Can you generalize about which styles of music or which sections of pieces are treated one way or another regarding text setting? What conclusions can you make about the melodies of songs you listen to?