The Death of Melody


I don’t know exactly when but at some point, in the last 18 years Melodies disappeared from music. I realise this will all sound like the impotent ranting of a man on his lawn shaking his fist at the sky but as a musician there has been a noticeable transition away from melody in almost all genres of music. Focus today, instead, relies upon the production or ‘sound’ of a recording or performance. For some styles of music (rap, say) a lack of melody has always been par for the course. Orchestral music, pre-Romantic era, was more focused on instrumentation and arrangement to convey its message or mood. But over the last 200 years or so, a melody has been the leading format for most western music. Most people will point out this 'Death of Melody' is because of the diversification of music in this millennium, the rise of world music and its tonalities being incorporated into contemporary music of all genres, and I would agree. This is certainly a positive, but I don’t feel like this should be at the expense of melody but adapted to, around or in addition. A key figure in this change to melody-less music is the Composer Hans Zimmer.

In case you don’t know, Hans Zimmer is this centuries John Williams, writing some of the most memorable scores for many of the biggest movies of the last 2 decades. For a quick primer in how Zimmer’s scores remove melodies but retain their mood or focus in scoring a movie, I recommend this video. Zimmer’s scores rely on bombast, volume, heavy percussion and – importantly – production. This makes them incredibly difficult to hum. As Tony Zhou pointed out in his own video, this lack of musical identification (that Zimmer is largely responsible for) for a given story or character in a score, can result in a certain neutering of tone. Or a vague homogenisation of it. One of the many reasons why the Marvel Cinematic universe movies tend to blur into one in my memory is down to this. And why the DC Universe (that was, until Justice League, mainly scored by Zimmer - ironically) stands out. It should be noted, however, that Zimmer’s best scores were made in collaboration with other composers like James Newton Howard (Dark Knight), Benjamin Wallfisch (BR 2049) or Junkie XL (BvsS). In interviews Zimmer comes across as more of a mad professor experimenting with sound in a post-modern way, than the classical idea of a 'composer'.

Contemporary orchestral music (classical music to most people) suffers similarly. In a post-modern, post-Bernard Herrmann/Philip Glass/Michael Nyman/Minimalist era, contemporary composers are left wondering where to go and are generally finding more work composing for media than purely writing a piece, let alone a suite, for performance. Jazz benefits in some ways from this deconstruction of melody the most with Brad Mehldau, The Bad Plus and more delighting in breaking apart classic melodies. The Blues has enjoyed recycling the same 12 melodies since it first began to develop in the early 20th century, tending to enjoy longer and longer guitar solos instead. Metal and Heavy Rock has never been overly concerned with melody preferring histrionics over a repeatable melody line, but other than a few ‘pop’ metal bands like the Foo Fighters, it has all but done away with it. And on and on it goes. Where it isn’t being recycled, melody is being removed.

This has lead to the rise of the producer as king. Dr. Dre, Max Martin, Paul Epworth, Rick Rubin, T.Bone Burnett, Ethan Johns and many more, all producers, all receiving co-credit, residual payments and six figure sums on any recordings they work on. A producer’s job is undoubtedly essential in the studio and it is certainly more than simply moving faders around. Pharrell Williams, Ethan Johns and Terius ‘The Dream’ Nash often are incorporated into the live bands as musicians or performers and even write a lot of the material with artists they produce. This is largely because a song (or track as they’re generally called now) has become more of an abstract thing. If an artist hasn’t walked in with a clear and distinctive melody and arrangement and the producer has to piece it all together, why shouldn’t they get the credit. Whereas if an artist does walk in with a full song this can apparently create more problems than it solves.

Melodies are powerful and, consequently, distracting. They can overpower a piece of music and are often the only part of a piece of music you will remember. Yet with only seven notes in a scale, melodies can run together. How many lawsuits do we hear of today where someone has stolen a song. The Hollies-Radiohead-Lana Del Rey continuity is a prime example of the fallibility of melody. If I asked you to hum the melodies of ET, Superman, Star Wars and Indiana Jones you immediately know they have distinctive melodies, but many is the time you watch people get confused over which lead line belongs to which movie. This is because John Williams always uses a similar scale and tonality for all of them. Melody isn’t a guarantee of distinction and can sometimes be more trouble than its worth when Allen Klein knocks on your door and says he’s taking all your royalties from your Number One song that neither he nor his clients wrote.

But something, to my ears, has been lost in all this. I’ve been feeling it a lot lately hearing more pop music on the radio (yes, some people still listen) that substitutes a chant or a “woooo-wooooah!” for a chorus, or a singer doing runs around a melody rather than simply allowing a melody to lead the song. I really noticed it when I went to see Justice League in the cinema and towards the end, Danny Elfman who replaced Zimmer in the composer’s chair, introduced with barely a few notes his own score from the Tim Burton Batman film and John William’s original Superman score. I think they were meant to be disguised but they were so immediately apparent it made my ears prick up. A melody will knock you over if you’re not ready for it. It will lift your song from a mediocre wordy strum to something profound. How often do you hear someone describe something as catchy? That’s melody.

I learn a lot of Beatles songs to try and rearrange them, and I soon realise how simple a lot of them are if you just play the chords, but the melody is so woven into those chord changes you can’t help but hear it, even if you aren’t singing or playing the lead line. Melody is a didactic, difficult, over-powering and an (apparently) easily forged thing, but it is also a memory-inducing, emotion-prodding, sing-along bit of magic. As music develops, in every genre, I fear we are leaving behind some elements of it that make it stand out, instead of merging it all into a homogenous mess for the sake of ‘The Market’. Unfortunately, with various lawsuits, streams in the billions and some people making it very, very rich for doing not all that much, I can’t see us returning to the giddy days of sitting round a piano for a sing-song of this week’s number one hit any time soon.