Have you ever wondered what tune someone was playing, only to recognize it quite far into the piece when it should have been apparent much sooner? Let’s assume that rather than being arranged in a purposely obscure way, the player intends it to be recognizable, in which case the problem is not with the listener but with the arrangement or delivery of the piece. It doesn’t matter what instrument you play; this can happen!

What’s going on and why does it matter? It matters because people enjoy recognizing tunes, and even if a tune isn’t commonly known, listeners enjoy being able to follow a melody. A melody is like a story line; it’s enjoyable and makes sense if no important parts are missing. Therefore, melodies of both familiar and unfamiliar tunes should be clearly audible within the arrangement (except for some New Age music, and some therapeutic music that does not use a melody structure), and all the melody notes should be played.

That said, playing a melody accurately doesn’t necessarily mean you have to account for every syllable of lyrics that exist for the melody, if they do. If, for instance, you were singing “Oh Shenandoah”, the three syllables of the word Shenandoah are all on the same note. In an instrumental version, playing all three of those notes can sound trite, so you can play, say, two notes by making the first note two syllables long. The accompaniment can pick up the unplayed melody note with a harmonizing note. This slight change doesn’t render the tune unrecognizable. However, if you left out the last two syllables of the first phrase “I long to see you”, and replaced them, say, with chords, people would wonder what happened. Why? Because those two notes are defining ones in the melody.

What I’m saying here applies mostly to solo playing. If you’re accompanying someone who is responsible for the melody, you don’t necessarily want to reiterate the melody except perhaps during a solo interlude. Chording along is just fine, or playing counterpart, or harmonizing.

There’s actually a traditional style of banjo playing from an area called Round Peak that approximates much of every melody instead of showcasing it. It was originally used mostly as accompaniment to a melody-only instrument such as fiddle. Now it’s also a solo style, but as a listener you have to know the melody to appreciate what’s being played, and fill it in with your imagination. The non-melody notes are often harmonies to the unplayed melody. Essentially, the rhythm is more important than the melody in this style, and the player goes for whatever note sounds good and is easiest to reach. By contrast, “melodic clawhammer banjo” style focuses on very precise melody playing. IMHO this is better suited to solo playing.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing a brilliant and inspiring performance by a well known banjo player. Of course I bought a CD. When I played it, however, I found that the melodic ambiguities in his tunes that I had assumed were due to a bad sound system were actually due to his delivery. There are many places where the melody simply disappears into the arrangement, to the degree that it can’t be inferred. He was also playing in duet with a guitarist, who was also approximating much of each tune, so between the two of them there was a lot of skilled note-playing going on but often no melody.

They obviously had the skill to play all the notes, but I think they might have fallen prey to a common syndrome in which the player assumes subconsciously that the audience can hear what’s in his head even if he’s leaving it out of his music. That assumption is so common that it drives much of what goes on –  or doesn’t  – in a lot of playing. The player “hears” (imagines) all the notes as they should be, but the listener hears many skipped or flubbed notes. It doesn’t occur to the player that what’s coming through is incomplete or sloppy. Recognizing this syndrome in oneself and correcting it can make the difference between progressing musically or not.

Once you become obsessive about making the melody heard (which is a good thing), you can then deal with other factors that can sabotage a melody. Recently, for instance, a harper mentioned that she had trouble making a melody stand out against its accompaniment (right hand vs. left hand) when the two hands play in the same range. This is a common problem that sometimes results in melodies being mis-heard. On any instrument that can play multiple parts at the same time, this problem is actually easy to address. To make it stand out, you can change the tone quality of the melody line by:

  • playing it with your fingernails while using finger pads for the other parts; fingernails produce a brighter tone and a more outstanding attack.
  • playing the melody notes closer to the soundboard or bridge for a slightly more outstanding tone.
  • playing the melody a bit louder, as long as you don’t lose finesse or tone.

Another common problem for any instrumentalist can be playing incidentals and ornaments as though they were melody notes. Historically, incidentals and ornaments in traditional music were improvised, but now many written arrangements include them. They are notes that are supposed to be played as enhancements to a melody, but not as melody. Ornaments are usually written as tiny notes, while incidentals usually look like melody notes and the notation usually doesn’t indicate that they aren’t. If you haven’t heard the basic (incidental and ornament-free) tune often and don’t have it in your head, it’s easy to think all single-line treble clef notes are melody. If you listen to a number of different arrangements for the same melody, you can pick out incidentals because they differ from arrangement to arrangement while the basic melody is fairly consistent. When become intimately familiar with the specific traditional styles in which ornaments and incidentals occur, you can often hear what’s melody and what’s enhancement the first time you hear a piece.

Incidentals and ornaments are meant to be played in a way that does not make them sound as important as the melody notes; they should be played a bit more softly. If played at the same volume as the melody, they change it.

Now, just to tease your brain, let’s look at the difference between incidentals and variations. Whereas an incidental is an enhancement to a melody and not part of it, a variation is actually different version of the melody. Variations, when used, usually occur after the original melody has been played all the way through at least once. A variation is a different but related melody and should be played as melody.

A good example of variation is an improvisational style from the Renaissance, in which a simple melody is made more and more complex with each repetition. Another example is Piobrach, which is a traditional style in Scottish Highland bagpiping; the player begins with a simple tune and with each repetition it becomes more complex. Bluegrass music, too, is full of complex variation. However, in many other styles of music, variations don’t necessarily have to be more complex than the melody.

Next time: Part 2  –  more elements in making melodies stand out