What makes a melody beautiful? I’m intentionally not asking what makes music beautiful, because there are many different kinds of music and with them, different kinds of beauty. But the beautiful melody is much more likely to transcend genres; it’s properties are more universal, so it seems most tenable to ask, “what makes a melody beautiful?”
Perhaps a good place to begin is to ask, what makes anything beautiful? Well, beautiful things have an appeal to them. They are not things that scare us, or make us wary of getting too close to them. They are inviting, enticing, and desirable. When we are in the presence of beauty, we are experiencing enjoyment and happiness. We may even find a calm and relaxed demeanor settle within us as we take in the beautiful object. The beauty we are witnessing settles into our spirit in a pleasing way that we embrace and welcome.
Things of beauty also tend to be conventional. There are no rough edges or off-putting confusions. The beautiful thing does not upset us or put us off balance. It doesn’t leave us confused or consternated. It does not disturb or provoke unpleasantness or defensive response. It follows a familiar pattern, it evidences an organization, a structure that is comforting and reassuring. We can escape into it’s aesthetic to feel restored, affirmed, and filled with something of life that is inexplicably good. I think that we can agree that all of this is true of this photograph.
But there’s something more than just familiar and comforting. There are thousands of photographs of ocean sunsets. Why are they not all beautiful? Why are some just average, while others grab our attention and draw us in, like this one? If it were only familiar and comforting, like hundreds of others, it would be boring, and unengaging. We stop to enjoy this picture because it reaches beyond our sense of sight and into the deeper regions of our emotions. It pushes our imaginations to activate our physical responses to something more stimulating and pleasurable than just viewing a picture. A sunset this beautiful is the exception, so it pushes us to a response beyond where our emotions usually are. It is similar to our heart rate increasing when we become physically active compared to when we are resting. In fact, a picture like this can cause our heart rate to increase, can create goose bumps, can fill us with pleasing enjoyment and “wow.” That’s the key to real beauty. It is a stimulus that takes our physical and emotional selves beyond where they normally are, and to an extreme that is safe and enjoyable, while not ramping up into wild excitement or “sweaty palms” kind of scary. Beauty is that sweet spot where we are stimulated in a pleasing way just the right amount to get the maximum degree of pleasure and enjoyment.
Now that we have at least some idea of what beauty is, how does this work with melody in music? In what ways do musical sounds arouse our imaginations and activate our physical and emotional selves, the way that photograph of an ocean sunset did? This question of what makes a melody beautiful is one that many have tried to answer, but without unequivocal success. So my attempts to arrive at an answer are no more and no less sure to hit the mark. Nevertheless, I cannot resist trying, so now let’s begin.
Composers have always tried to write music that was expressive. Through the centuries, musical norms, restrictions, and cultures have afforded composers various kinds and degrees of freedoms with which to bring expression to their music. There has been a steady move from single unaccompanied melodies of medieval chant (monophony), to highly structured harmonized tonal music of the classical period, to the expanding harmonic vocabulary of the romantics, to ever increasing dissonance, until composers pushed tonality to the breaking point. All of this occurred as composer’s sought to make their music more expressive, and needed to push the limits of comfort and familiar to maintain beauty and avoid becoming dull and boring.
Because beauty depends on pushing at the limits of comfort. The more comfort one has in dissonance, the more dissonance is needed to push against that comfort in order to write music that still sounds beautiful. So to the extent that music is subjective, it is so based on the parameters of a listener’s musical comfort zone. There is pleasure in having those limits pushed, as long as they are not broken. Notice that at the points where this melody seems most beautiful, it is pushing on a dissonance and then resolving to a tone more settled, more at rest.
The dissonance squeezes us, and then we are released by the resolution that follows. The beauty comes not just in the resolution, but in the anticipation of the resolution. It’s very much like being excited about arriving at a vacation destination. There is pleasure in anticipating, and then there is fulfillment of the anticipation when we get there and enjoy it every bit as much, or more, than we expected. Dissonance and the resolution that follows it in music is like that. Without the dissonance, the resolution would just be another pleasant sound, but not particularly beautiful. It needs the contrast of the dissonance, of the ugliness if you will, to precede it to make it seem beautiful.
As we listen to music, and I am speaking now of homophonic Western tonal art music often referred to as classical music, we perceive beauty in the musical element to which our attention is drawn. While there are many elements audible at any given moment, elements such as harmony, rhythm, timbre, tempo, dynamics, pitch, melody, and so forth, the music is designed for us to be drawn to the melody, with the others providing a context in a sort of supporting role. Pitch and rhythm combine to form melody, and all else are influencers of the melody. So as you listen to the excerpt from Rachmaninoff’s second symphony, you likely thought the melody was beautiful. You may think this because of the timbre of the clarinet, or because of the harmony in the background, but your attention is on the melody. The clarinet and the harmony contribute to the beauty of the melody. It would be much more unusual for one to say that the melody made the harmony sound beautiful, or even that the melody made the clarinet sound beautiful. It is much more likely that both the clarinet and the harmony made the melody sound beautiful, and it is the melody that was your focus of attention.
This concept of attention to an element is also true of visual art. In the picture of the ocean sunset, what exactly is it that we see as beautiful? It is the sun and the radiant orange that it casts on clouds and water. I’d be surprised if you looked at that picture and thought “what a beautiful blue sky,” or what a beautiful ripple of water breaking on the shore.” It would not surprise me if you didn’t even notice the patches of blue sky. No, your attention went to the sun and it’s color casting. The rest is set in contrast so that the focus of our attention, the sun, is all the more beautiful. So the picture is beautiful because of the specific element in the picture to which the artist has drawn our attention, and the artist uses the other elements to support it as background and contrast.
Ultimately, beauty relies on lack of beauty, and especially pushing the boundaries of lack of beauty, to set it off as beautiful. What are your favorite beautiful melodies? What are examples of beautiful melodies from other genres of music? What effect does listening to a beautiful melody have on you? Let us know in the comments.