Personifying Musical Action

A melody does things in a look at me kind of way. It walks, it skips, it pirouettes like a sprightly dancer; it leaps from one pitch to another like a long-limbed ballerina. Melodies love attention and they have a diva quality, as if believing that their personal and exteriorized dramas are of intrinsic interest and that we’ll follow the trajectory of their moves simply because they’re moving. They herald, weep, exult, or rage, all the while keeping one eye on us to see if we’re buying their performance. Conjuring like a magic wand, melodies are a vertical theater of pure spectacle.

Harmonies support melody’s prancing around by rolling out a plush carpet. Harmonies are careful onlookers, almost like bodyguards, assessing the dimensions of the space melody might need. They’re measured personalities, plotting a horizontal terrain upon which melody will dance. Harmonies aren’t naturally flashy like melody, yet believe that their own coiled tensions are essential musical constructions. Unlike melody, harmonies are plural beings—they contain multitudes in two, three, four or more notes per moment—and they know they can pack a punch in their supporting role. While melody dances and showboats for the crowd, harmonies let their multitudes work by setting the scene. Conjuring like a scent or subtle lighting, harmonies animate music on the level of the subliminal.

Rhythm is a choreographer and referee holding a stopwatch. He watches melody dance over harmony’s measured space, looks at his stopwatch, and rolls his eyes. That could be tighter he says. A taskmaster, rhythm makes suggestions about proportion, duration, and syncopation, explaining to melody that juxtapositions of short and long could vary melodies’ affective dramas. Then he turns to the harmonies. Don’t just stand there in the back he suggests. You too have a story to tell. Rhythm inspires his colleagues, animating them, giving them a literal charge. Powering like electricity, rhythm drives music on the visceral level of current. When melody and harmony apply rhythm’s lessons, everyone is happy.

Timbre is a fashion expert, dressing melody and harmony in various clothing drawn from her vast trunk of materials. Timbre is acutely aware of how music is judged by its exteriors—how different sounds synesthetically signify different textures and colors—and so imagines different ways to outfit a tune. In a free moment, timbre shows melody some new threads. You could go from this sound to this one, she says, while keeping your pitches intact. Melody smiles—let’s do it! Harmony, though measured and reserved, overhears the conversation and wants to know more, wondering if timbre can make his chordal multitudes conjure differently. Pick an affect you want, timbre says with glee, and we’ll have you try it on. Harmony beams as he slips on a new coat.

Form is a sharp-eared musical marketer and promoter who owns the building where this music rehearsal is happening. He’s sitting behind a one-way mirror, looking down at his notes. Form needs to figure out a way to sell this whole thing—how to bring it to the right context so it reaches the right ears. He lets the four figures in front of him work out the music among themselves, though it’s clear that he will have the final say on the sequence of events. As he watches the rehearsal he writes notes: Maybe the beginning section should return at the end? Is there enough repetition? Is this for contemplation or dance? Is it ABA or ABCBA? Are Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm on the same page? And why does timbre keep interrupting everyone? One thing Form knows for sure is that in music, order is everything.

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