Riding the Wave of Melody

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When I was writing up my visit to The Royal Harmonics back in August, an image that has long lurked in the back of my mind came into much more vivid focus: the idea of musical flow as water. The specific image that opened this image up was the association of the swell of melody with depth of feeling.

A melody that is sung note-to-note-to-note is somehow like a shallow puddle, with little wavelets little more than ripples. The peaks of the ripples are all the same height, and that height is only minimally above the surface of the water: they lap at the edge of the pool with no great effect. The ripples are also close together. So if you want your love-song to sound as shallow as a puddle, you should energise each note individually, but just by a bit, and not make much differentiation one from another.

A melody that is sung in long arching phrases is much more like the sea, with great rollers surging through it. These waves operate on a grander, more measured timescale, and the regular swell is interspersed with periodic waves that are significantly larger than the rest. The sweep and undertow of the waves can lift you off your feet. So if you want your love-song to sound as deep as the ocean, you need to join the melody up into what Henry Coward called the line of beauty.

Once I had this global image of music=water in my mind, I noticed all kinds of related imagery that is part of my regular thinking about music. The first time I played as a piano soloist with an orchestra at the age of 17 I likened the experience to surfing - being borne up on a wave of sound that suddenly freed me up and allowed me a much less strenuous technical approach. I have heard the technique of vocal legato described as water flowing from a tap, with the consonants as flicks from a knife that momentarily interrupt but can't stop the flow. I have used imagery of the bernouli effect to help both singers and arrangers experience the differences in inner musical propulsion created by wide or narrow voicings.

There's no original thought here of course: I am just drawing attention to a set of imagery that subsists in our musical culture. But it is a lovely case study of the kinds of processes that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have written about whereby our languages and concepts are driven at a deep level by our physical experiences of living in the world. Abstract concepts do not leap fully formed into our disembodied minds, but are abstracted from our collective experience of living in the world by a process of metaphorical mapping.

So, the notion of FLOW acts as what Johnson calls and image schema, a basic map of how things operate in the physical world that can then unfold into metaphors we use to think about, experience, and make music. We draw comparisons between our collective experience of how liquids behave in real life with both the ways that melodies move and how we feel in states of heightened emotion, and these implicit comparisons allow us both to perform music so that it makes meaningful gestalt out of a collection of contiguous sounds, and to respond to it as a heartfelt and communicative experience.

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