Mendelssohn, Memory & Melody by Ken Myers

Column: From Heavenly Harmony

Mendelssohn, Memory & Melody

by Ken Myers

All music has a narrative quality about it. Even the simplest melody has a plot-like structure. Sing the tunes (without the words) to "Happy Birthday" or "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" or "Jesus Loves Me" to children, and the children know the music has—like a good story—a beginning, middle, and end. They sense the movement or progress within the melodic line that holds their attention, and they want the satisfaction of getting to the "end of the story" (try omitting the last several notes and see how dissatisfied they become).

The mystery that is melody involves its storied nature. Roger Scruton observes, "Even the simplest folk-melody seems to be working towards a conclusion, which rounds off the musical gesture and gives an impression of completeness." Harmonic and rhythmic organization can also convey motion and the sense of departure and arrival that is essential to every good story. The most artful music succeeds by combining multiple levels of motion in synchronized melody, harmony, rhythm, and aural texture, just as the best stories and the best storytellers weave elements of plot, character, setting, and verbal form in a coherent whole greater than the sum of its parts.

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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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