Date: Fri, 08 Jan 1999 15:45:37 -0600
From: Eddie Lewis <>
Subject: Modern Music

Sorry to be so late on this one.

William Russo defines the four "Principal Elements of Music" as:

1) Melody
2) Harmony
3) Rhythm
4) Orchestration

I had heard the same thing before, but without the fourth principal, but I think it makes sense.

He goes on to say:

"More than melody or harmony, rhythm has a life of its own, and attempts have been made, in works for percussion instruments of indefinite pitch, to suppress completely the harmonic and melodic elements of music. But to whom beside a percussionist can such pieces be of interest? Music without melody or harmony reminds me of Sidney Lanier's wistful experiments with poetry without meaning, in which words are used to construct successions of beautiful but meaningless sounds rather than to communicate ideas and feelings. Such music is no music-it is incomplete and lacks variety."

He also writes:

"Music in which the harmonic element is paramount, in which the richness and sonority of individual chords and the skilful construction of unusual progressions constitute the principal interest to the listener, is capable of great beauty, as is music in which rhythm or orchestration is thee paramount element. (The most attractiver example of music in which rhythm is the chief ingredient is Latin American music, which has a bare minimum of melody and harmony, and whose orchestration has little variety.) But these species of music are somehow incomplete. They lack interest; they are difficult for the listener to retain; they are unbalanced and unfinished. They cannot be made into extended pieces, and they tend, even when short and snappy, toward tedium."

By quoting Russo, I don't mean that I neccessarily agree with him. But he does make the best case for that side of the arguement. It seems to me that much of the so called modern music is less melody oriented and leans more heavily towards Harmony, Rhythm or Orchestration.

Case in point, that last HSO concert I attended had a "Modern" work (sorry, but my biggest weakness is that I cannot remember names) and what struck me was the blatant absence of melody and/or melodic developement. This is not to say that I didn't like it. But I can understand why the old lady sitting me had such a lost look on her face when it was over.

As Russo said, music in which melody is not the dominant "principal" is "difficult for the listener to retain". And I truly think that this is where the debate between modern and traditional music sits. Up until the impressionist erra, most Western music was dominated by melody. Music in general lost many of it's listeners and supporters when it began divorcing itself from the melody.

But I must add that I don't agree with the implications that Russo makes, "such music is not music" and that it tends towards tedium or is incomplete. In retrospect, knowing that SOME modern music is not "Melodic" in nature, then when I listen to that music, I simply don't judge it on melodic standards. To appreciate this music, you need to look beyond the melody (or lack of) to see what the composer's intentions are.

But this is where my summary of "music appreciation" comes into play. When I listen to ANY music, I try to listen for the message that is being delivered through the music.....NOT what I want to hear from the music. It only makes sense that, if I have preconcieved ideas of what music is supposed to be, then I will NEVER understand the music which doesn't fit that supposition.

I apply this concept to everything which has to do with music. If I'm listening to a trumpet player, I don't judge that player according to my standards of what I think a trumpet player should be. Instead, I try to listen for and understand what that individual's standards are. Think of all the different aspects of music....of trumpet playing. We are all different in which of those aspects we chose to make our principal concerns. Some players are more conserned about phrasing than any other aspect. Others are more concerned about pitch. Others yet are more concerned about range. We are all different and the only way we can appreciate each other's music is if we learn to hear what other people are "saying through their music" without expecting to hear what we ourselves would say.

Applied to music, the same is true. When we listen to modern music, and expect to hear a beautiful melody, we will most often be dissapointed. To enjoy it, we must learn to hear what is being said without superimposing our own musical standards. If the work in question is primarily "Rhythm" orient, then we should marvel in the use of rhythms. If the work is orchestration oriented, then we should marvel in the
orchestration....not because we have to.....but because, through effort and later understanding, we finally hear what is being said and finally "get the message".

That said, there are very few musics that I don't like. Most of these are works in which I do get the message, but it's a message which I don't like. For example; I do like a lot of rap....but if the message behind the rap is hatred and violence, then that music is not for me.

- --
Eddie "Tiger" Lewis