Adam Gopnik, speaking yesterday on Radio 4’s ‘A Point of View’ about the Beatles, ended his talk with a thought-provoking idea about melody and harmony.
‘Melody lies behind us, and calls us to our memories of a better past’, he said. ‘Harmony always lies ahead… as the herald of a better world, where all opposites will sing together as one.’
Bob and I felt we knew what he meant about harmony being an illustration of how different voices can co-operate and weave something satisfying. Yes, we agreed that harmony is often used in music to evoke synthesis, a vision of what could be achieved.
But melody lying behind us? I am not sure I’ve ever perceived melody like that, although of course I enjoy associating certain tunes with specific occasions in the past. I’ve always thought that it’s melody’s special gift to make the present feel completely right, certainly for the few seconds that the melody lasts. There’s a big difference between a musical motif and a melody; it’s hard to describe what the difference is, but you know it when you hear it. A melody knits together musical intervals into a lyrical unit that makes perfect sense, and sinks without any effort into your memory. For me, that doesn’t mean that melody lies behind us – it’s rather that we find it easy to remember something which lights up the moment so vividly.