Friday, December 3, 2010

Melody and Madness

by Greg Shelley

1 Corinthians 14:7 (NIV)  "Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes?"


I was in Guitar Center the other day--the famous music store.  As usual, there was another metal masher pounding out a random, undefined, chaotic, power chord jam.  I've talked to and known some of the metal-heads, as they are often called. All of them embrace the random and chaotic nature of their music with pride.  I'm sure there are those who don't but I have not met them.  Usually their style is random.  And among my many guitar students, it seems the word "random" has become a pop culture expression. 

Let me say, I would never seek to stop anyone from playing this way--that is, random, often with walls of sound.  During my nightclub years I played similar music for a living.  But the talking point here is melody.  And it is melody that is lacking from much of our music these days.  Not just the death-metal music but often more mainstream music has it's melody obscured by too many instruments, random chord structure, too many sound effects processors, or just too much sound. 

Historically, consider the "wall of sound" started by Phil Spector in the 1960's.  This music legend produced the The Beatles, The Ramones, Ike and Tina Turner, John Lennon and many others.  In the wall of sound type of production, the guitars are so drenched in compression and overdrive, or stacked on top of each other, track upon track, that the melody can be buried. Sad note: Phil Spector is now a convicted murderer currently serving 19-years-to-life in a California state prison. 

Other random and chaotic pioneers include the much loved Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain, again both of whom played music I have enjoyed or played myself.  Sad that both of those icons met untimely deaths surrounded by scurrilous circumstances.

Not to disparage Phil or any other iconic musician, I have enjoyed much of the music from these historic figures. I mention Spector and Hendrix because they rose during what I think was the real start of it all--Cobain being more recent.  There was melody in the music of these icons.  But it was starting to be drowned out back then.  And it seems melody has been disappearing from mainstream music, little by little, decade after decade, ever since.  Even the melodic country music genre often is giving way to a hard driving sound wall.

History aside, I spend about 40 hours per week teaching people guitar, in individual sessions.  I've done this off and on since I was 14 years old.  I see lots of people on an individual basis.  Back in 1974, if I asked any of my students to hum the melody of their favorite song they could usually do it without thinking much. These days if I ask a student under the age of 25 to hum a melody from their favorite song I usually get a puzzled look.  They don't understand.  Either they don't know the melody, or don't know what a melody is, or their favorite song has no melody that is defined enough to remember.

May I divulge, one of my degrees is focused in psychology and I worked in the field for six years.  I pay attention to people's actions and words on such things.  And this I promise, I have noticed the trend towards a lack of melody or melodic understanding as it has developed gradually over the years.  Student by student, as well as in the media, this has become evident.


1 Samuel 16:23 (GW) "Whenever God's spirit came to Saul, David took the lyre and strummed a tune. Saul got relief {from his terror} and felt better, and the evil spirit left him."

As a former therapist, I used guitar with patients and saw, at times, remarkable results.  It was the tune, the melody, that brought the troubled mind into focus.  But the melody was always defined.  By contrast, I knew of patients who were obsessed with chaotic heavy metal madness--literally.  I knew one patient who would sit for hours just playing the same heavy metal jam over and over.  It would be fine if it was just practice.  But the jam was just a few seconds long and he played it perfectly--over and over for hours.  For him the loudness, the chaos, was an expression of what was in his mind.  He embraced it so much that it led him further into madness. 

By contrast, those patients I worked with who embraced melody and definable sweet songs always got better--dramatically better.  There are many stories like this I could tell--maybe another time.  It should be stated that I no longer am a therapist.  But this illustrates the point about melody which is so illuminated now in my guitar teaching and in my music.

Melody is about definition.  It is about clarity of thought.  Madness is about confusion and uncertainty.  And so I spend a lot of my time in private music lessons helping young people learn what a melody is.  That is, I teach them what a "tune" is that you can hum and remember and use to comfort yourself on your guitar or with your voice--when the iPod is not there.  The tune or melody is what fixes a song in our hearts so that we can recall it for whatever reason.  Consider the Psalms of the Bible which often begin with "to the tune of . . . "

So why does this matter? 

It goes to the idea that art and life mirror each other.  If our melodies are not well defined, if they are too obscure or too random to remember, what does that say about our ability as a nation, as communities or as individuals, to produce anything usable?  For example, if we set out to manufacture a car using the random and undefined premises which are taking over our music, hmm, well, I think you get it.  The car will be random and undefined and probably run the same way.  Nobody really wants a car that runs randomly, or indefinably.  We look for clearly dependable cars that are well defined, well appointed and clearly going to get us where we want to go on time. 

Hey! You can imagine the commercial:  "Buy our new Lexus, when you are in a tight spot, when the road is snowy or wet or rough, you can count on the randomness and undefined performance of our fine automobile." 

Anyway, our minds, our spirits, our personal well-being are all linked to this.  We must ask, are our thoughts defined, clear and available to be accessed for use?  Or are they cluttered, blurry and too covered with mumbo jumbo to be of any real productive value.  It matters because music is integrated with our minds.

As our music and art goes, most likely our industrious nature follows--or is leading.  Either way the result is the same.  It's the old question, "does art imitate life or does life imitate art."  Whether our nature is leading or following our art, still we should take notice.  It matters because we may be spiraling into an ineffectual life.  We should determine what is happening because it may be the "canary in the coal mine" telling us that the air is getting to be sub-standard--so to speak.  If our thoughts and our nature are without definition, it manifests in sub-standard work of all kinds.  This is irresponsibility and it produces a society unable to take care of itself well.

Of course, this is all conjecture, right?  Is the madness and moral decay in our society the result of undefined moral code?  Is it like the undefined melodies of our music? 

With God, the Bible and the name of Jesus Christ being wiped from our societal set of absolutes, our criteria for moral judgements regarding right and wrong is disappearing.  It is lost in a sea of loosely defined ideas about proper behavior.  If it feels good do it, right?  Do we have a consensus?  Of course, until it is inconvenient for the most powerful and elite.

Our politicians get away with fraud and lies on a daily basis.  Our courts turn loose criminals on technicalities.  Our laws are random because they change based on how good someone's lawyer is--how much they can afford--instead of on clearly defined commands and absolutes which spell out clearly how to behave. 

All of this matters because without absolutes everything is arbitrary.  Arbitrary absolutes are random.  And in this setting the tyrants and elitists abound.  Madness and usually oppression ensues.

Does having a random nature in our society lead to guitar players who play random undefinable melodies and walls of sound?  Or, is it the guitarists and producers who play this way that are leading society astray?  You've heard the old saying: "It's the Devil's music."  Hmm. 

Wait, I know!  Maybe the guitarists play that way because they just like to play that way.  Well, okay.  Never mind.

Isaiah 23:16 (ESV) "Take a harp; go about the city, O forgotten prostitute! Make sweet melody; sing many songs, that you may be remembered."

copyright Ó 2010 Greg Shelley,  all rights reserved

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