Elusive Concatenation of Sound

Hear me!

The funny thing about melody is that it describes a phenomenon that can only be experienced by letting the vibrations set off by carefully tuned instruments in the indicated ranges start the vibration of all those molecules of “air” that lie between the instrument and your ears. This sends an interpreted version of those vibrations through a series of mechanisms in your ears and turns them into nerve signal versions of what started off, typically, as a string or a column of wind wiggling around under a bow or through a tube with holes set to open and close as fingers press valves. Well, or as a column of wind from a singer’s lungs getting vocal chords or just the right type to flap flutter in just the right way.

If we try to talk about melody using words, we can evoke feelings that the melody “makes” us feel (although our feelings are very subjective and individualized). We can use adjectives that attempt a description of the melody but unless we sing the melody ourselves we cannot really talk about it without sounding a little idiotic. In the following passage of proto-words, I am going to describe the first two bars of BWV-773:

“duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh—deedle….”

Here it is as written by J.S. Bach (treble clef only, nothing in the bass clef those first two bars):

First 2 bars BWV-773 (JSBach)

You can listen to the first two bars or go all the way through the following piece (which differs from the above in that the last quarter note is played as eight 32nd notes) and you will hear something which we might describe as “beautiful” or “serene” or “carefree” or “dull” or “boring” – it’s really up to you how this makes you “feel” about it. Nonetheless, the series of “duh-duh”s that I wrote above doesn’t describe it in any way. It sort of has the rhythm of the notes as written but has none of the intervalic—between-note or between-frequency-values—movement that really provides the beauty (for me, at least).


In a massive departure from the above, Steve Reich’s 1966 piece Come Out uses recordings of the human voice speaking in overlayed loops to establish both melody, harmony, rhythm, meter, tempo, and slowly shifting counterpoint (a huge element of many Reich compositions (see Music for 18 Musicians for what I consider a spectacular piece)).
An element that is really neat about Come Out is that the voice, although it is speaking just a few words, which then gets looped (repeated), it is defining notes. Three notes descending in a scale from the first “come out to…,” then back up and down one “…show them.” A little group of five notes, repeated and increasingly confounded into a cluster of sound. The point here is that we all TALK in melodies all of the time but most of us tend to hear the words and ignore the changes in frequency that occur within words and between words. The notes we touch while we are talking are not necessarily in the scales with which we have become most familiar in the western world. There are more notes in the speech of human beings than just those used in “formal” composition (unless you’re Reich, Laurie Anderson, or many others who compose using this approach.)

This gets us over into the world of microtones-the notes that live between the notes most often chosen for western classical and popular music. Many music forms from around the world have used microtones for centuries, if not millennia. It may be that the earliest music just didn’t really concern itself with being “in tune” in any currently recognized sense of that concept. The melodies were what they were on any given day and the intervals were probably roughly similar to what they were the previous day but the focus on how those scales were divided up was probably less important.

Here’s a nice introductory talk on how microtones play an important role in contemporary—and in world—music.


Wendy Carlos used a variety of extended tuning techniques on her ground-breaking work Beauty in the Beast. You will probably notice very quickly that we are no longer in Kansas. Try not to reject the tones you hear. Understand these intervals on their own terms. It will be difficult. It will not be impossible.

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2j1gy2 It is impossible to say with any certainty why or how humans started making music. It is impossible to say whether singing or rhythms (pounding out beats on wood or rock or our own bodies). Try to imagine, though, a year of days in which the only sounds were bird songs, calls from various animals living pretty close, the sound of a stream or river being brushed by winds of various velocities, which also rustle the leaves of every tree in a cascade of microtones and rhythms that change constantly until they are quiet, until they “rest” (meant in the musical sense of a pause between notes). Perhaps we heard all of these sounds and started to mimic some in our speech or in our songs, in our pounding out rhythms, rock-to-rock, stick-to-log. Really, who knows?

It is impossible to say with any certainty why or how humans started making music. It is impossible to say whether singing or rhythms (pounding out beats on wood or rock or our own bodies). Try to imagine, though, a year of days in which the only sounds were bird songs, calls from various animals living pretty close, the sound of a stream or river being brushed by winds of various velocities, which also rustle the leaves of every tree in a cascade of microtones and rhythms that change constantly until they are quiet, until they “rest” (meant in the musical sense of a pause between notes). Perhaps we heard all of these sounds and started to mimic some in our speech or in our songs, in our pounding out rhythms, rock-to-rock, stick-to-log. Really, who knows?

Try to imagine that, though, and listen to some portion of the following. Close your eyes, find their melodies and sing along. You may be singing the songs of your ancestors.

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Author: makingsenseofcomplications

I have an academic background in literature and, separately, science. My career has been in industry in positions of increasing responsibility assisting in the drug development process - one of the most amazing intellectual pursuits of the human mind, among many other amazing intellectual pursuits. I am interested in films, philosophy, history, art, music, science (obviously), literature (also obviously), some video gaming, human behavior, and many other topics. I wish there was more time in every day because we have a world that is full of amazing phenomena that are considered too superficially by too many. Although my first and last names are fictional, I think I believe in all of the stuff you read here, although I retain the right in perpetuity of changing my thoughts about anything written herein.

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