This is a continuation of the previous post (Part 1).
The last post discussed how to make a melody stand out from an accompaniment clearly. In addition to the actual melody line, other elements that make a melody “make sense” are: emphasis, tempo, beat, rhythm, and accuracy. Harmony choices in an arrangement are also important. The melody is recognizable when the correct notes are all there and when all the other elements are in place. Let’s look at each of them.
If the melody doesn’t stand out in an arrangement, it gets lost. Assuming all the notes are there, you can define the melody clearly by making the tone quality distinct. As stated in the previous post, on some stringed instruments this can be accomplished by using the fingernails to pluck the melody notes, and the finger pads for the rest of the arrangement. Or play the melody notes closer to the soundboard or bridge. Or just pluck the melody notes a little harder, as long as you don’t lose finesse or compromise good tone.
Tempo is, obviously, how fast or slow a piece is played. If you play a familiar tune at a significantly different tempo than the one in which it’s usually heard, it may not be immediately obvious what the tune actually is. (This can occasionally be a nice effect when done purposely and if melody recognition isn’t of primary importance.)
Beat is the pulse of the piece. Beat is not synonymous with tempo; a beat exists regardless of how fast or slow a piece is played. No matter the tempo, if you want the melody to be recognizable, keep the beat reasonably steady; in other words, don’t slow down, speed up, or pause erratically. A tune has no “hook” if it’s all over the map. Practicing with a metronome is a good habit (and doesn’t make your music stiff – honest – if you use it correctly).
The beat is the heart of the music; without it, our attention wanders just as it would if you were hearing people speaking a language you don’t understand. (Which brings up the fact that there is some music that is purposely devoid of beat, rhythm and tempo, and therefore has no time signature. It is played for the purpose of encouraging the mind to wander or to promote deep relaxation or sleep. There is also a Celtic vocal style called Sean Nos – “old style” – that often has no beat. Neither of these is usually notated; they are improvised or learned by ear. There is some Gregorian Chant that does have an ancient type of notation with no time signature).
Rhythm is the combination of the time signature, the beat, and the note values indicated in the notation. The rhythm of a piece is its foundation and therefore determines its character. (Bossa Nova, Samba, and Tango for instance, are types of rhythms.)
Everyone knows that a melody is recognizable when played accurately, and less so when it isn’t. Accuracy is more than just getting the notes right – in fact it’s getting all of the above factors right. It comes only with practice. Yet often students ask why they can’t play like (insert your idol’s name here) when they’ve only been playing a piece for a week or two. Accuracy isn’t so much a function of effort – you can’t force it – it’s a result of patience. After much patient practice over a long period of time, when a piece of music feels like you can flip your “play” switch and it just flows out of you, and it’s accurate and expressive, that’s real musicianship.
By the way, if one is already adept at one instrument, learning another one may not necessarily happen as quickly as one would like. Knowing in our heads how something is done is not the same as being able to do it with all the techniques and kinesthetics habituated. Allowing oneself to be a beginner for a while brings better results than expecting to play well sooner than can be reasonably expected.
On instruments on which a full arrangement can be played, the arrangement itself makes a difference in how the melody is perceived. Harmony choices can make a familiar tune recognizable or not. If you play a well-known tune with different chords from the ones commonly used for that tune, it will be less recognizable. It’s fun and perfectly acceptable to do this on purpose to add interest and variation to a piece (you can even turn a major piece into a minor one, for instance), but if you want a piece to be very easily recognized, you may wish to use the chords or harmony intervals people expect to hear.
Finally, it helps to be aware of when melody recognition matters and when it doesn’t. If you’re not concerned about familiarity, or you want to do something innovative in a situation where it’s appropriate, there is no correct or incorrect way to arrange a tune. How often I’ve heard someone say, “You can’t use those chords there,” or, “That’s the wrong tempo,” or, “You didn’t play all the notes” (i.e. you didn’t follow the notation exactly). They may be right if you’re playing in a jam session or ensemble, but if you’re playing solo and have chosen to play something differently, you have a right to do so.