To Melodize or Not to Melodize: the Place of the Tune in Music

Todd M. Compton

A few years ago I read a biography of one of my musical heroes, Johannes Brahms, written by musicologist and composer, Jan Swafford.[1] It was a superb book, exploring Brahms’s life and also his music, both with great sensitivity and insight. He has also written an introduction to “classical music,” The Vintage Guide to Classical Music,[2] and excellent biographies of Beethoven, Mozart and Charles Ives.

Therefore it is with trepidation and some hesitation that I find myself disagreeing with him on a fairly basic principle of music analysis and appreciation, I can only take comfort in the fact that almost no one will read this little essay.

In the Vintage Guide, in the biography of Beethoven,[3] and in an article on melody, his web publication “The Most Beautiful Melody in the World,”[4] Swafford argues that good melody is not a requirement for good or great music. Early in the Vintage Guide book he has a little essay on melody that starts with a denial of the importance of melody.[5] In the first sentence of this essay, he writes: “Given that many people consider melody the main thing in music . . . it is surprising how many works of all kinds have found popularity without a strong melodic line.” He then lists works, classical and popular, that have under-developed melodies, in his view — or don’t have melodies at all — to support his argument that they’re good or great music, but without good melodies, or without any melody.

He goes on to praise some melodies — but he quickly turns back to another argument against the need for melody. “A piece can be great without a great tune or without any tune at all,” he writes.[6] (At the beginning of his little essay, he seems to define tune and melody as the same thing.[7]) Melody is not necessary at all.

Swafford makes some of the same points in “The Most Beautiful Melody in the World.” In an article that in theory is celebrating melody, he instead emphasizes that melody is absent from much good music: “I’m far from claiming, though, that strong melodies are necessary to a piece. Some of the most beautiful music I know is not based on melody at all.” He adds, “Dylan’s sublime ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is a pitchless chant, as is a good deal of rap.”


Swafford applies this concept, that melody, or good melody, is often not a necessary component of music, to some of the great composers in musical history, starting with the three musicians who pioneered the sonata allegro pattern in the symphony and related forms — Franz Joseph Haydn, the “Father” of the symphony and string quartet, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Beethoven, often regarded as the greatest composer in history. Swafford writes that Beethoven was following Haydn when he composed melodies that are sometimes “common,” “plain” and unpromising.” “As with Haydn, Beethoven’s motifs are the simplest and most common things in music.”[8] “Haydn often presented material that appears plain and unpromising; it was the totality of the work, the whole of the form, that gave the material vitality and meaning. This was perhaps one of the deepest lessons Beethoven learned from Haydn.”[9] One of the most profound lessons Beethoven learned from Haydn was thus how to write common, plain, unpromising melodies, and create great works by using these subpar melodies in an extended structure.

One wonders if Swafford has simply overstated his position here. Certainly, some of Beethoven’s themes are not the sweeping, hyper-emotional melodies found in Tchaikovsky or Chopin. But are they bad melodies? His descriptive words for many of Beethoven’s melodies are quite negative: “common,” “plain” and “unpromising.” In one place he characterizes the melodies of all of the classical era of music, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, as somewhat drab. “Classical themes tend to be unassuming . . . In fact, many great Classical works  . . . have no particularly striking melodies.”[10]

“Unassuming” is not too positive, but “no particularly striking melodies” is definitely saying that “many great Classical works” are based on melodies that not memorable or interesting. Combined with “common,” “plain” and unpromising”, Swafford seems to be arguing that many of the great works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are based on bad melody.  

Once again, I see how one could argue that there are different kinds of melody in Beethoven — some limited in scope, some expansive; some slow and singing, some fast and rhythmic; some deadly serious, some a humorous romp. Nevertheless, all of those kinds of melody can be good, memorable, emotionally involving melodies. Swafford doesn’t seem to be arguing this — he seems to be asserting that some of Haydn’s and Beethoven’s great works are based on melodies that are unmemorable, common (not in a good sense), and, in fact, bad.

Yet these works achieve greatness by the development of the mediocre melodies, according to Swafford: Haydn and Beethoven often used common, not especially striking melodies, but it is “the totality of the work, the whole of the form, that gave the material vitality and meaning,” despite the subpar melodies.

The regular understanding of the sonata allegro form, used in Haydn’s characteristic genres, the symphony and string quartet, is that the first movement, especially, is organized as an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. The exposition section introduces, “exposes,” “brings forward” the melodies (often called themes); often a primary theme at the beginning, followed by a contrasting secondary theme, sometimes with an ending theme following. The first theme of the first movement is especially important, as it sets the tone for the whole symphony. The development section “develops” the themes, in an atmosphere of conflict and uncertainty. The recapitulation section resolves the conflict by repeating the themes without the conflict found in “development” — it is a sort of homecoming to these familiar themes. According to Swafford, the themes themselves, the melodies, are not important. They can be mediocre, lacking in emotion, unmemorable. But the development section, using these mediocre themes as a starting point, followed by the recapitulation, somehow achieves greatness. The exposition melodies, according to Swafford, seemingly are pedestrian; the exposition simply provides “raw material for development.”[11] You don’t really need anything striking or interesting to develop.

Swafford doesn’t mention any particular works of Haydn to make his argument; he seems to include all of Haydn in this blanket description. When he mentions Haydn’s themes, he describes them without any positive evaluation.

As should be clear by now, I disagree with Swafford’s position, or at least believe that some of the terminology he uses is not valid in assessing the melodic achievement of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. They are quite different from some of the melodies of Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Chopin, but they are marvelous in their own way. As far as form goes, it is certain that the sonata allegro form dramatized melodies in a way that great composers and many listeners have found satisfying and moving over the centuries. But the sonata allegro form, I believe, without melodies that are memorable and compelling, is an empty shell.  


Following is a short survey showing the importance of melody especially in the works of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart. Because Swafford has highlighted Haydn and Beethoven, it will be useful to make a quick overview of the opinions of those composers, and other major composers, on melody in music.

Haydn: “It [melody] is the soul of music, it is the life, the spirit, the essence of a composition”

According to one of the early biographies of Haydn, the composer continually emphasized the importance of melody. He “repeated incessantly: ‘Let your air [melody] be good, and your composition, whatever it be, will be so likewise, and will assuredly please. It [the melody] is the soul of music,” continued he, “it is the life, the spirit, the essence of a composition.’ ”[12]

Haydn contrasts the inspired melodist with the technically well-trained composer. Composers like Tartini, who could not write superior melodies, “may find out the most singular and learned chords, but nothing is heard but a laboured sound; which, though it may not offend the ear, leaves the head empty, and the heart cold.”[13] For Haydn, good melodies must be memorable and emotionally involving.

And again, “It is the air [melody] which is the charm of music, said Haydn, incessantly. It is also that which it is most difficult to produce. Patience and study are sufficient for the composition of agreeable accords [harmony], but the invention of a fine air is a work of genius.”[14]

The author of this early biography described Haydn as “the man who exalts the importance of melody, on every occasion, and who is continually recurring to this doctrine.”[15] The biographer not only records Haydn’s views on the central importance of melody, but emphasizes how relentlessly he would repeat it, no doubt to his students.

In another important early biography, by Griesinger, we learn that Haydn’s “theoretical raisonnements were very simple: namely, a piece of music ought to have a fluent melody, coherent ideas, no superfluous ornaments, nothing overdone, no confusing accompaniment, and so forth.”[16] Melody is listed as the first requirement for good music, and ornaments and accompaniment must not distract from it. According to Dies, another early biographer, “Haydn’s first aim . . . was always first to engage the intellect by a charming and rhythmically right melody. Thus he secretly brought the listener to the ultimate aim: to touch the heart in various ways.”[17] Far from being “common” and “unpromising,” Haydn’s themes aimed at being “charming,” engaging the intellect, and touching the heart. Ornaments and accompaniments may support them, but should not distract from the melody’s primary importance.

Haydn loved melody, but he also was serious about developing it. He told Griesinger: “Once I had seized upon an idea, my whole endeavour was to develop and sustain it in keeping with the rules of the art.” [18] Feder and Webster comment, “A Haydn movement works out a single basic idea; the ‘second theme’ of his sonata forms is often a variant of the opening theme.” “Seizing upon an idea” does not sound like writing a common, lackluster melody.[19]

If composers do not “seize upon” a worthy idea and develop and sustain it, they fail. “This is where so many of our new composers fall down. They string out one little piece after another; they break off when they have hardly begun, and nothing remains in the heart when one has listened to it.”[20] The aim of Haydn’s melodies/themes is to touch the heart.

Haydn also remarked:

I must have something to do — usually musical ideas are pursuing me, to the point of torture, I cannot escape them, they stand like walls before me. If it’s an allegro that pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I can get no sleep. If it’s an adagio, then I notice my pulse beating slowly. My imagination plays on me as if I were a clavier.[21]

He worked hard at composing. He said, “I never was a quick writer, and always composed with care and deliberation. That alone is the way to compose works that will last, and a real connoisseur can see at a glance whether a score has been written in undue haste or not.”[22] It does not seem reasonable that such a careful craftsman, who had such a love for melody, would write common, unpromising themes for his works.

The distinguished musicologist Donald Tovey wrote, of Haydn: “the life his themes live is one that has no room for meanness or triviality. This is great music.”[23]

Charles Rosen, who specialized in the Classical era, wrote, “In Haydn, everything comes from the theme, as the composer himself claimed: out of the character of the theme and its possibilities of development arises the shape of the musical discourse.” “The first theme not only defines the tonic but proclaims the importance of the work.”[24] The first theme for a superior symphony would hardly be common or unpromising (which is not to say that it cannot be gentle, pastoral, amusing, or unpretentious).

Thus, the symphony, a genre which Haydn brought to maturity, was not simply a larger structure that by its length alone gained profundity; it was a vehicle for inspired melody. A good melody must be repeated and highlighted and “developed.” The symphony gave the melodies of the composer greater force and drama; it would be merely “learned,” “laboured” and “empty” if it were an extended structure without memorable melody.

Mozart: “Melody is the essence of music”

The next great exponent of the symphony, the concerto, as well as choral works and operas, and all kinds of chamber music, was Mozart. His inspired melodies in his symphonies, concertos, chamber works and operas are of course well known. Swafford nevertheless includes Mozart in the classical tradition of non-striking melodies.[25]

However, Mozart’s views on melody were similar to Haydn’s. Mozart’s friend, the Irish tenor and composer Michael Kelly, remembered a conversation with Mozart on melody: “ ‘Melody is the essence of music,’ continued he [Mozart]; ‘I compare a good melodist to a fine racer [a race horse], and counterpointists to hack post-horses.’ ”[26] Mozart, of course, was not attacking counterpoint per se, as he often wrote brilliant counterpoint; he is merely saying that counterpoint, and any technical proficiency in music, without melodic inspiration is dry and empty.

Beethoven: “I must discharge melody in all directions”

Next in our line of great symphonists is Beethoven. Swafford holds that Beethoven, as a student of Haydn, learned from his teacher this skill, to write “common” melodies and organize them in a way that somehow achieves greatness despite the melodies’ lack of quality and distinction. Thus, Swafford argues, the totality of the musical structure achieves greatness, despite its mediocre melodies.

He admits that Beethoven wrote an occasional good melody, but also argues that he often wrote unmemorable themes, even in some of his greatest works. Swafford writes: “Though Beethoven could write a dandy tune now and then, some of his finest movements are based on rather simple and featureless melodic material.”[27] The idea is that Beethoven often wrote such “featureless” melodies, then made the movements great by his technical mastery of formal arrangement. Swafford writes, “Many great Classical works, such as Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, have no particularly striking melodies.”[28] The idea that Beethoven based some of his greatest works on mediocre melodies is a curious argument. In all of Beethoven’s great work, the melodies are carefully composed. He would work on his themes painstakingly, revising them over and over again. It is true that some of his melodies are not characterized by a broad sweep; but a melody doesn’t have to be a lush romantic Tchaikovsky theme to be a good, memorable melody. A great (or a good) composer can achieve forceful emotional power with a limited range of notes. Beautiful folk songs sometimes use only the pentatonic scale, five notes. Some of Beethoven’s melodies have the simplicity, sincerity and limited range of a folk song. But Beethoven’s genius allowed him to create inspired, powerful melodies with that seeming simplicity and sometimes comparatively limited range of notes.

Beethoven is known as a revolutionary because he led music into the intense emotionalism of the Romantic era. It is true that he used the sonata allegro form of Haydn and Mozart with consummate skill and creativity; but if his symphonies had been based on mediocre, unmemorable melodies, they would not have been successful. And in fact, as we have seen, the art of Haydn and Mozart was based on the centrality of skillful, inspired melody. It is hard to imagine that Beethoven would have ignored this element of the Haydn/Mozart tradition and then express his greater range of emotion with undeveloped, “featureless” melodies. Certainly, my experience, and the experience of many others, has been that Beethoven’s music is a treasure house of emotionally affecting melody.[29] Debussy described the melody for the last movement of the Ninth Symphony as “sublime” and having an “extraordinary beauty.” He noted how it had been worked on over and over in Beethoven’s notebooks; Beethoven tried two hundred versions of the theme before he arrived at the final combination of notes and rhythm that satisfied him.[30] Swafford may admit that this is one of Beethoven’s good melodies, but it is typical of how Beethoven worked on all his themes. Schumann also commented on Beethoven working “long and laboriously” on a seemingly “simple melody,” and advised a student to work on melodies the same way.[31]

Some contemporaries viewed Beethoven’s work as strikingly melodic. A reviewer of the First Symphony wrote that it was “a masterpiece that does equal honor to [Beethoven’s] inventiveness and his musical knowledge . . . there prevails in it such a clear and lucid order, such a flow of the most pleasant melodies, and such a rich . . . instrumentation that this symphony can justly be placed next to Mozart’s and Haydn’s.”[32] In Swafford’s biography of Beethoven, he tells how Salieri, his last teacher, who specialized in opera, “thrashed” one of Beethoven’s exercises. But on the following day, Salieri ran into his student in the street and laughing, “complained that he hasn’t been able to get the tune [of Beethoven’s assignment] out of his head.”[33]

Beethoven, in an important statement on his method of composition, wrote that he started by painstakingly creating the melody, the musical idea:

Not only because of their contents, but also because of their rhythm, Goethe’s poems have great power over me, I am tuned up and stimulated to composition by this language which builds itself into higher orders as if through the work of spirits and already bears in itself the mystery of the harmonies. Then from the focus of enthusiasm I must discharge melody [Melodie] in all directions; I pursue it,[34] capture it again passionately; I see it flying away and disappearing in the mass of varied agitations; now I seize upon it again with renewed passion; I cannot tear myself from it; I am impelled with hurried modulations to multiply it, and, at length I conquer it: —behold, a symphony![35] 

Working out the melody in a painstaking way is the foundation of the work. He must “capture it passionately” — again, this does not sounds like Beethoven writing common, unmemorable themes.

Beethoven also wrote, “I carry my [musical] thoughts about with me for a long time, often for a very long time, before writing them down. . . . once I have grasped a theme, I shall not forget it even years later. I change many things, discard others, and try again and again until I am satisfied; then in my heard I begin to elaborate the work in its breadth, its narrowness, its height, its depth, and, since I am aware of what I want to do, the underlying idea never deserts me.”[36] Beethoven does not proceed with developing a theme until he has worked on it for years in his mind. It seems unlikely that such themes, worked on literally for years, would be “featureless” and not “particularly striking.”

The composer Robert Schumann contrasted bad melodies, “anything easily, rhythmically pleasing” with those of a handful of the greatest composers, and includes Beethoven in his list. “But there are melodies of a very different type; at whatever page you open Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc., they [inspired melodies] will smile out at you in a thousand different ways.” Then you’ll weary of the lesser melodies.[37] Schumann puts Beethoven solidly in the tradition of composers producing the finest melodies.

From Schumann to Mahler — “music without melody is not music”

Beethoven led the way to what is called the Romantic era, in which composers wrote music that was more intensely emotional, and emphasized the melody as they did this. Schumann, both a great composer, and a fine critic, wrote in his “Rules and Maxims for Young Musicians” (1849) that “music without melody is not music.” Schuman also advised young composers: “You must invent new and bold melodies.”[38] Melody is the most basic component of music, and the essential element of musical invention was melodies.

It almost seems unnecessary to mention the importance of melody for composers of this era such as Mendelssohn, Brahms, Chopin, Dvorak, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Grieg. Once Dvorak, describing a Brahms work, highlighted the emotional power of melody. After Brahms played the first and last movements of his third symphony to him, the Czech composer wrote to a friend: “What lovely melodies are there! It is pure love, and on hearing it your heart melts within you.”[39] The emotional component of music, based on the essential element, melody, is an important issue.

In the late Romantic era, Mahler wrote, “Believe me, it [composition] rests principally on the old tried and true: Themes, clear and plastic, distinctly recognizable in every transformation and further development; then a varied and, above all, arresting execution through the logical development of the inner idea, and conversely, through the genuine contrasting of themes pitted one against another.”[40] Certainly, in a symphony there is “transformation” and “development.” But structuring such long works is dependent on “the old tried and true” — melodies that are “clear” and “distinctly recognizable.”

Richard Strauss wrote an essay titled “Melodic Inspiration” (1940) in which he laid down that “melodic inspiration is the absolute revelation of final mysteries.” When he composed, “The melodic idea, coming straight out of the ether, . . . suddenly overtakes me.” And he includes Beethoven in his short list of great melodists: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner.[41]

Béla Bartók: “a genuine peasant melody of our land is a musical example of a perfected art”

The great twentieth century Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, collected folk, “peasant” tunes, and forged his musical language from that idiom. He wrote that “a genuine peasant melody of our land is a musical example of a perfected art. I consider it quite as much a masterpiece, for instance, in miniature, as a Bach fugue or a Mozart sonata movement is a masterpiece in larger form. A melody of this kind is a classical example of the expression of a musical thought in its most conceivably concise form, with the avoidance of all that is superfluous . . . in a peasant melody . . . all that is incidental is entirely missing — we have only what is fundamentally essential.”[42]

Bartók is saying two fairly radical things here. One is that a folk tune is as much a masterpiece as “art music” by Bach or Mozart. Bartók is denying the apparent chasm between “folk”/popular music and “classical” music. Both genres include masterpieces. They are not polar opposites. (They also intertwine with each other.[43])

Second, Bartók is stating that a short work, a melody, a song or dance, can be as much a masterpiece as a long developed work. In fact, a folk melody has a superiority, in one sense — the “incidental” has been removed, and we are left with “what is fundamentally essential.” Certainly, Bartók believed in developing melodies in long works, such as his Concerto for Orchestra or Violin Concerto, but such works are still based on the melodic language of short “peasant music,” songs and dances.

Once again, Bartók, like Haydn and Mozart and others before him, is describing melody as “what is fundamentally essential.”

Some critics lean toward long works in “classical” music. Certainly, long works can be great, and one of my favorite concert experiences was attending a live rendition of Mahler’s Third Symphony by the San Francisco Symphony, which took an hour and forty-five minutes to perform. But long works will be successful because the composer has mastered melody, then has used it to build a larger structure. Long works cannot be great unless they are made up of the building block of effective melody. Certainly, a long work like Handel’s Messiah is a masterpiece; but if Handel had no gift for melody, no one would want to listen to it.

Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Copland, Satie, Stravinsky: “The melody is generally what the piece is about”

Two great twentieth-century Russian composers who wrote very powerful melodies also regarded melody as the essence of music.

In 1948 Soviet politicians accused Prokofiev and Shostakovich of writing non-melodic music. Prokofiev defended himself:

I have never questioned the importance of melody. I love melody, and I regard it as the most important element in music. I have worked on the improvement of its quality in my compositions for many years. To find a melody instantly understandable even to the uninitiated listener, and at the same time an original one, is the most difficult task for a composer. Here he is beset by a great multitude of dangers: he may fall into the trivial or the banal, or into the rehashing of something already written by him. In this respect, composition of complex melodies is much easier. It may also happen that a composer, fussing over his melody for a long time, and revising it, unwittingly makes it over-refined and complicated, and departs from simplicity. . . . One must be particularly vigilant to make sure that the melody retains its simplicity without becoming cheap, saccharine, or imitative.[44] It is easy to say, but not so easy to accomplish.[45]

Rachmaninoff, a composer known for his powerful melodies, wrote, “Melody is music, the basis of music as a whole, since a perfect melody implies and calls into being its own harmonic design. Melodic invention is the composer’s vital, most important aim.”[46]

Erik Satie also wrote about the relationship of melody and harmony:

A melody does not imply its harmony, any more than a landscape implies its colour. The harmonic potential of a melody is infinite, for a melody is only an expression within the overall Expression.

Do not forget that melody is the Idea, the outline; as much as it is the form and the subject matter of a work. The harmony is an illumination, an exhibition of the object, its reflection.[47]

As an authority on Satie’s music wrote, “First and foremost, Satie’s article reveals the primacy of melody in his art.”[48] Satie is known as an avant-garde composer, but he used carefully-written melody to achieve his avant-garde purposes.

Aaron Copland, who sought to use the folk music of America as part of his musical language, wrote, “The melody is generally what the piece is about.”[49]

Stravinsky is an interesting case. As he was a composer who wrote in many styles, it is not surprising that he has said various, seemingly contradictory things about music. But in 1939-40, he wrote, “I am beginning to think together with the general public that melody should keep its place at the summit of the hierarchy of all elements which constitute music.”[50] He also said, “What survives every change of system is melody. The masters of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance were no less concerned over melody than were Bach and Mozart.”[51]

In 1921, Stravinsky praised Tchaikovsky as a writer of melody: “Chaikovsky possessed the power of melody, centre of gravity in every symphony, opera or ballet composed by him. . . . The fact is that he was a creator of melody, which is an extremely rare and precious gift.”[52]

Thus throughout history, many of the greatest composers have regarded melody as the very essence of music.

Though Leonard Bernstein stated that there were many different kinds of melodies, he felt that all music had it. “Where there’s music, there has to be melody. You can’t have one without the other.”[53]

Pop and Rock

Swafford also brings in contemporary popular music to support his argument that good music doesn’t have to have developed melody, or any melody at all. He deserves credit for including popular music in his discussion, but his arguments do not reflect the totality of popular music. “Rock n roll, for example, is not a particularly melodic genre,” he writes. “ ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ are mostly a minimal chanting of two or three notes.”[54] These two songs are not representative of all popular music. The Beatles’ music was, in fact, distinguished by a consistently higher standard of skillful and inspired melody than the music of any other group. And, not uncoincidentally, McCartney and Lennon have been the most influential and popular songwriters of their generation. While Swafford points to “Come Together,” we could instead consider two of the Beatles’ most successful songs, “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude,” both of which are distinguished by expansive, haunting melodies.[55] “Come Together” has its strengths, but Swafford is correct that it does not have a great melody in its sung music. However, the sung melody is not the only component of the song: McCartney’s bass (he’s known for his melodic bass style) adds greater melodic complexity to the mix.[56] Despite the superior lyrics of “Come Together,” and despite the creative arrangement and McCartney’s bass and piano additions, it isn’t one of the best Beatle songs, musically.

Granted, there are many rock songs without good melody; but they are the ninety percent in Sturgeon’s law — ninety percent of any genre is bad. The great melodic rock and pop music of Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Jimmy Webb, Neil Finn, Richard Thompson, Paul Simon, Kate and Ann McGarrigle, and Burt Bacharach, just to name a few songwriters, is the music that will last. If you take a group known for its hard rock, Led Zeppelin, and ask, what is its most famous song, strangely enough, it is the intensely melodic “Stairway to Heaven.”

The rock/pop songs that are based on hackneyed, undeveloped, uninteresting melodies are flawed and will not survive, though sometimes they may have brief periods of popularity. Rock and pop songs such as “Hey Jude,” “Here There and Everywhere,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Good Vibrations,” “With or Without You,” “Wichita Linemen,” “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” “The Look of Love,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” and albums such as Pet Sounds, Revolver, Blue, Songs in the Key of Life, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, and Land’s End, are melodic masterpieces.

And this is not even looking at the great American tradition of melody in musicals, from Gershwin and Irving Berlin to Richard Rodgers and Leonard Bernstein. And the skillful Brill Building songwriters. And the great songs of Motown, from The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and “My Girl” to Smoky Robinson’s “The Track of My Tears” . . .


Granted that Swafford has written about the intensely melodic music of Brahms and other great composers with such insight and sensitivity, it seems a paradox that he has seemingly gone out of his way to undersell the importance of melody in music. I think the answer to this enigma is in this sentence: “A number of twentieth-century avant-garde and electronic pieces have made their point with nothing even approaching a tune.” Because what we define as “modern” or “contemporary” “classical music” often lacks melody, he argues that good music does not need it.[57] In “The Most Beautiful Melody in the World,” he writes that “new classical music these days is not much involved with tunes.” Swafford, a modern “classical” composer himself, has taken up his position downplaying the importance of melody out of loyalty to modern “classical” music that often has little or no melody.[58] So his writing includes an affirmation of the beauty of melody written by great composers in the melodic, tonal tradition; but it is also a manifesto against the need for melody; you don’t need it at all in modern “classical” music. And to support this view of modern “classical” music, he argues that Beethoven and Haydn’s great pieces in the sonata form are often based on melody that he seems to define as mediocre or sub-par.

What do we do with contemporary music, electronic music, and rap and hip hop music, which do not have melody? Actually I believe it will be most helpful to regard these as separate genres. They are valid genres, and they certainly have their followers and adherents, but they are not music in the tradition of tonal music based on melody. There should be traditions of electronic and atonal music, granted that gifted composers are interested in composing these kinds of music, and that they have devoted listeners. But in modern “classical” music, there will also be a continuation of the vital tradition of melodic, tonal music that is conversant with folk and popular idioms.





[1] Johannes Brahms: a Biography (New York : Vintage Books, 1999).

[2] The Vintage Guide to Classical Music (NY: Vintage Books, 1992).

[3] Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

[4] Slate website, July 30, 2013, at (acc. 4-11-20).

[5] The Vintage Guide, 8-15.

[6] Vintage Guide, 10.

[7] “so as to tunes, let’s put it this way: if the melody is the main point.”

[8] Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, 192.

[9] Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, 313.

[10] Vintage Guide, 131.

[11] Vintage Guide, 131.

[12] L. A. C. Bombet [Stendhal], The Lives of Haydn, Mozart and Metastasio and on the Present State of Music in France and Italy, 2nd ed. (London: John Murray, 1818), 87. This book is partially based on Giuseppe Carpani, Le Haydine, Ovvero Lettere su la Vita e le Opere del Celebre Maestro Giuseppe Haydn (Milan: Buccinelli, 1812). See Vernon Gotwals, “The Earliest Biographies of Haydn,” The Musical Quarterly 45:4 (Oct. 1959): 439-459.

[13] Bombet [Stendhal], The Lives of Haydn, 87.

[14] Bombet [Stendhal], The Lives of Haydn, 159-61. See also J. Cuthbert Hadden, Haydn (London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1902), 169.

[15] Bombet [Stendhal], The Lives of Haydn, 168.

[16] Georg August Griesinger, Biographische Notizen über Joseph Haydn (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Hirtel, 1810). As translated in Vernon Gotwals, ed., Joseph Haydn: Eighteenth-Century Gentleman and Genius (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963), 60.

[17] Albert Christoph Dies, Biographische Nachrichten von Joseph Haydn Nach mündlichen Erzählungen desselben entworfen und herausgegeben . . . (Vienna: Camesinaische Buchhandlung, 1810). In Gotwals, Joseph Haydn, 125.

[18] Griesinger, in Gotwals, Joseph Haydn, 61.

[19] Georg Feder and James Webster, The New Grove Haydn (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 43.

[20] Griesinger, in Gotwals, Joseph Haydn, 61. Hadden, Haydn, 169.

[21] Quoted by Dies, in Gotwals, Joseph Haydn, 141.

[22] From Griesinger, in Gotwals, Joseph Haydn, 61-62. Hadden, Haydn, 169.

[23] Symphonies and Other Orchestral Works: Selections from Essays in Musical Analysis (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2015), 346.

[24] Charles Rosen, Sonata Forms (New York: Norton, 1980), 177.

[25] Swafford, Vintage Guide, 131.

[26] Michael Kelly, Reminiscences, 2 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1826), 1:225.

[27] Vintage Guide, 8.

[28] Vintage Guide, 131. In his biography of Beethoven, Swafford writes that in Beethoven’s early and middle periods he wrote many great pieces without interesting melody. “In his early and middle music Beethoven wrote a great many memorable pieces without particularly striking melodies, the fragmentary Hero theme of the Eroica an example.” Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, 919. Actually, I think most music critics would agree that the opening theme from the Eroica symphony is striking and memorable, if not a lush Tchaikovsky theme, or a toe-tapping Broadway song.

[29] See comments on Beethoven’s melodic richness by Schumann, Debussy and Richard Strauss below.

[30] Claude Debussy, Monsieur Croche, the Dilettante Hater (1901), as quoted in Josiah Fisk, ed., Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings, 2nd ed. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997), 201.

[31] Letter to L. Meinardus, Sept. 16, 1848, in Robert Schumann, On Music and Musicians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946), 78.

[32] As quoted in Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, 289.

[33] As quoted in Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, 223.

[34] By “it” in this statement, Beethoven means melody.

[35] Beethoven’s words are quoted in Bettina von Arnim to Goethe, May 28, 1810, in Alexander Wheelock Thayer, The Life of Ludwig von Beethoven (NY: the Beethoven Association, 1921), II:188. Bettin von Arnim, Goethe’s Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde; Seinem Denkmal (Berlin, bei Ferdinand Dümmler, 1835), 2:195.

[36] From a written conversation with Louis Schlosser (1822 or 1823), as quoted in Sam Morgenstern, Composers on Music: an Anthology of Composers’ Writings from Palestrina to Copland (NY: Pantheon, 1956), 87.

[37] “House Rules and Maxims for Young Musicians,” published with Schumann’s Album für die Jugend, Op. 68 in 1849. Fisk, Composers on Music, 97. Schumann, On Music and Musicians, 36.

[38] Schumann, On Music and Musicians, 36, 37.

[39] Letter to Dvorak’s publisher, Simrock, Oct. 10, 1883, in Fisk, Composers On Music, 164.

[40] Letter to Max Marschalk, Apr. 12, 1896, in Fisk, Composers On Music, 190-91.

[41] Fisk, Composers On Music, 211.

[42] “The Folk Songs of Hungary” (1928), in Béla Bartók, Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (London: Faber, 1976), 333.  See also “The Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music” (1931).

[43] As Bartók mentions, all folk music is tonal, so if you base your musical idiom on folk music, you will not be writing atonal music.

[44] Swafford describes Beethoven and Haydn as writing “simple” melodies — but as Prokofiev shows, writing melodies that are powerful, yet seemingly simple, is one of the most challenging tasks for even the greatest composers.

[45] Prokofiev, “Letter, Response to the Resolution of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of 10 February 1948.” (acc. 6/21/20).

[46] As quoted in Andrew Huth, liner notes to Rachmaninoff, Symphonies Nos 1-3 & Symphonic Dances, performed by London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Hyperion Records, 2018, (acc. 4-11-20). I have not yet found the original source of this quote.

[47] “Subject Matter (Idea) and Craftsmanship (Construction),” in Notebook BN 9611, 1917, written while Satie was composing his masterpiece, Socrate. As quoted in Robert Orledge, Satie the Composer (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 68.

[48] Orledge, Satie the Composer, 70.

[49] What to Listen for in Music (NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1939), 7. See also Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music, 14.

[50] Stravinsky, Poetics of Music: in the Form of Six Lessons, tr. Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942), 40.

[51] Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, 39.

[52] As quoted in Eric Walter White, Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 527.

[53] Script for “What Is Melody,” (1962) (acc. 7/17/20).

[54] Vintage Guide, 8.

[55] Swafford does praise “Yesterday,” in his Slate article. Jimi Hendrix, of course, was known as a great guitarist, not primarily as a songwriter. (His “Little Wing” is a great song; but notice its fine melody.)

[56] “Come Together” was mostly written by John Lennon, though the song was developed by McCartney and the rest of the Beatles. For Lennon’s tendency to write songs with limited melodic range at this time, and for the development of “Come Together” in the studio, see my book, Who Wrote the Beatle Songs: A History of Lennon-McCartney (San Jose, CA: Pahreah Press, 2019), 282-83, 209, 385-86.

[57] Vintage Guide, 8.

[58] For an introduction to the problem of melody in modern “classical” music, Michael Fedo, “Why Does Contemporary Classical Music Spurn Melody?” The Christian Science Monitor (Feb. 11, 2011), at (acc. 5/7/20). Alex Ross, “Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?” The Guardian (Nov. 28, 2010) at (acc. 5/7/20).