The Melody Lingers On

The Melody Lingers On 

By Patrick F. Cannon

When Leonard Cohen died last week, my subconscious juke box began to play one of his most famous songs, Suzanne. It was only one of the many excellent songs he had written, but it was the first one to land on my brain’s turntable.

I doubt that there has been a day in my life when some piece of music didn’t exit me through a whistle or hum. If no one is around (always excepting my poor wife Jeanette, who has to put up with it) some words might emerge as well. My interior play list must contain hundreds, and perhaps thousands of melodies.  When it became clear that Donald Trump had been elected, I recalled Don Cornell’s hit of the early 1950s, This is the beginning of the end, I can see the thrill is gone…. Perhaps if Hillary Clinton had won, I might have crooned an earlier hit from Dick Haymes: The moon was all aglow and heaven was in your eyes, the night that you told me those little white lies.

Neither is a truly great song, but our memories aren’t always as selective as we might wish. Here are the first lines of a few more that don’t belong on my juke box, but are there anyway:

In a quaint caravan, there’s a lady they call the gypsy…

            We ought to bake a sunshine cake; it does more good than a big, thick steak…

            Ramona, I hear the mission bells above…

            An old cow poke went riding out one dark and windy day…

            When I go to sleep, I never count sheep, I count all the charms about Linda (this

because I was in love with a Linda in grammar school)

            Whenna da moon hits you eye like a biga pizza pie, that’s amore…

Well, you get the idea. Pride of place in my memory bank, however, is reserved for the songs of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Arlen, Rogers and the others who made American popular music the world’s gold standard. More recently, I would certainly add Lennon, McCartney, Simon, Dylan, Sondheim, Lloyd Weber, and Bacharach, to name just a few.

The reason we remember their songs is that the best ones have a distinctive melody, which is critical in helping us remember the lyrics. Just imagine getting a book full of lyrics for which you didn’t know the melody. Would you even read them, much less memorize them? There’s something in our brain that wants to pair the words and music, that seeks a pattern that will enable us to recall even a song we haven’t heard in years.

Similarly, we seek the same kind of patterns in so-called Classical music. Although the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony couldn’t be simpler, they immediately identify what will follow. The work contains other melodic themes, each developed in ways that make the symphony instantly recognizable to someone who has heard it as many times as I have. I could say the same for other of his compositions, and for those of Mozart, Bach, Shubert, Haydn, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and Wagner.

Rap and Hip Hop also have patterns of a kind, although the content is often execrable. Much of Rock music depends more on rhythmic patterns and noise than melody and thus the words often seem irrelevant if they are understood at all. Even serious composers seem to have decided that melody is passé. They compose music that is often understood and appreciated only by other composers and a very small audience.  I find it amusing that some music critics decry the lack of contemporary music in major symphony orchestra programs. While they do their best to feature and even commission some modern music, they understand that their audience and particularly their subscribers want music they understand and actually enjoy. At the risk of seeming like a Philistine, I agree with them. And in the words of the immortal Ink Spots: What good is a song if the words don’t belong [but I also reluctantly agree]… to each his own, to each his own…

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Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon

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