The Most Beautiful Melody in the World

You know it when you hear it.

George Gershwin.

George Gershwin: He had rhythm, he had music, he had melody.

Courtesy of Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress

OK, I’m not actually proposing to name the most beautiful melody in the world—I’m not that arrogant or that dumb (though I do have some thoughts on the matter, which I’ll share below). For now, I want to offer a small tour of some of the most beautiful and enduring melodies I happen to know, and talk about what makes them that way. Will we thereby find the eternal secret of great melody? Well, no. But it’s one of those questions that can get you somewhere if you don’t take it too seriously.

First, naturally, we have to define what a melody is. It’s … oh jeez. All right, let’s turn to the authoritative Grove Dictionary of Music: “Melody, defined as pitched sounds arranged in musical time in accordance with given cultural conventions and constraints, represents a universal human phenomenon. … While the exact causal relationships between melody and language remain to be established, the broad cultural bases of ‘logogenic melody’ are no longer in question.” Um, moving right along …

The venerable Harvard Dictionary of Music is more slippery, and maybe for that reason more convincing: “A coherent succession of pitches. Here pitch means a stretch of sound whose frequency is clear and stable … succession means that several pitches occur; and coherent means that the succession of pitches is accepted as belonging together.” In other words, a succession of notes that sounds to you like a tune is a tune. As goofy as that is, I can’t think of anything better, because we’re dealing with an exquisitely subjective and mysterious phenomenon, one universal yet elusive, like love and God and other enigmas. You know it when you hear it—according to how you’ve been conditioned by your culture and experience to hear it.

This means that the next person’s idea of a tune may not be yours. We musicians know all about this. Somebody once congratulated Debussy for transcending melody, and he retorted in outrage that his music was nothing but melody. Both Beethoven and Brahms were accused of having no melody; so has modern jazz. When I hear some traditional African songs, I enjoy them but can’t figure out how they remember them. The same goes for a good number of pop tunes.

Each culture has its own sense of melody, one that often seems peculiar to the next culture. Some early Japanese tourists in the West had to be carried out of opera performances, they were laughing so hard. Westerners often struggle when listening to traditional Japanese singing, which tends on first acquaintance to sound a bit constipational. (Some of these mutual strangenesses have to do with vocal style, of course.)

With time and experience, new kinds of melody can become coherent. I had to learn how to listen to Schoenberg’s themes, but now his music sounds fairly tuney to me, and ditto Bartók. 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; rather, the effect comes from mood, harmony, rhythm, color, and how those things on their own can reach the heartstrings.

I’m going to focus here on Western melodies, ones of a particular kind. People tend to call everything a “song” these days, even a symphony, but there are all kinds of songs, and not all of them have melody. On the whole, rock ’n’ roll is not a particularly tuneful genre. I’m fond of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” for example, but its “tune” mostly jogs in place on three notes, with a little flight at the end of the phrase. What makes that song work is its sound, its atmosphere, its distinctive loping rhythm, its surreal words: “Here come old flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly, he got juju eyeball, he one holy roller …” Many classic songs are founded on a catchy rhythm (Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm“) or a striking chord progression (“All the Things You Are“). Dylan’s sublime “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a pitchless chant, as is a good deal of rap. Most of the time, symphonic themes are not particularly tuney, because they are made to unfold and develop over a long haul. As we’ll see, though, in classical pieces there are notable exceptions to that rule.

The tunes I mainly want to talk about are ones you might whistle in the shower or sing around a campfire: melodies that have a kind of independent there-ness on their own, often memorable and distinctive even without accompaniment. I’ll start with one of my favorite traditional American songs, “Wildwood Flower.” It was the Bluegrass group Flatt & Scruggs’ theme song, Joan Baez did a fine version, and it was made famous mainly by the Carter Family, which is performing it here. Supposedly folk songs are a spontaneous product of folks, not written by any one person, but that’s partly myth: Like “Wildwood Flower,” a lot of them were first composed by professionals, then evolved through the generations. (At least, they evolved before recordings, which tend to fix any piece into a standard form.) Texts and melodies are fluid, new words written for old tunes.

A successful tune needs to be “coherent.” What makes a tune coherent? That too is an elusive matter, but there are some things that can be identified: A memorable tune has some consistent motifs and a satisfying shape. The most obvious motif in “Wildwood Flower” is rhythmic: the dum dee-dee dum dee-dee that starts at the beginning and goes throughout. The main melodic motif is a three-note bit of descending or ascending scale that happens some dozen times in the tune, starting with its first three notes. As to the shape, this one has mostly the stepwise rise and fall of typical folk songs; it rises quickly to the fifth degree of the scale and drifts back down. For me the glory of the tune is what happens in the middle: an exhilarating leap up to its highest note that in every verse nicely underlines the words at that point (“and the myrtle so bright”). Then it sinks back down in an echo of the beginning.

We find the same kind of thing in what may be the oldest extant hit song in the West, the 16th-century “Greensleeves,” here done in a capella style by the King’s Singers. There’s an old legend that this was written by King Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn. It wasn’t. The subject may be a prostitute, or not. The author is perhaps one Richard Jones, and in its first year (1580) there were half a dozen versions in print. Shakespeare mentions it in The Merry Wives of Windsor. More recent incarnations have included the sighing orchestral variations by Ralph Vaughan Williams and the melody of Jacques Brel’s acid “Amsterdam.” In the 1950s a straightforward version was a hit single alongside Elvis songs.

The engine of “Greensleeves” is the steady lilting rhythm in the style of the time’s romanesca. It’s got an A idea of two lines and a B idea likewise. The main melodic motifs are a four-note bit of scale that goes up and down throughout, and three notes descending a chord. The tune has an especially elegant, rolling contour, highlighted by the passionate and climactic B idea (“Greensleeves was all my joy”) that starts on the melody’s highest note.

So there’s a tune that has been embraced by millions for going on over 400 years and counting. I’m not saying that all great tunes get to the point of being what we call “standards,” and hardly were all of them written by well-known composers. One of the most famous “Haydn” tunes is the F major Serenade for string quartet. Except it isn’t by Haydn, but by the largely forgotten Roman Hofstetter, who passed it off as Haydn’s. It used to be a theme song of TV comedian Ernie Kovacs.

Being a tunesmith, a crafter of catchy melodies, is a distinctive and rare kind of musical talent. A good tune happens to you; you can refine it, but in the end it can’t be created by work or by will. Schubert and Mozart had the gift in spades, Beethoven less so, and there was not much Beethoven could do about it (though he wrote his share of splendid tunes). This also reveals that you don’t have to be a tunesmith to be a great classical composer. Lots of Beethoven does perfectly well without striking themes, and sometimes in his instrumental music Schubert’s pretty, self-contained tunes get in the way of the ongoing musical dialogue.

The early-Baroque master Claudio Monteverdi was a fine tunesmith when he needed to be, and one of his most stunning moments appears to be the final love duet in his opera The Coronation of Poppea. In fact, while most of the opera is unquestionably Monteverdi, this stunner “Pur ti miro” may be a contribution by some anonymous composer in a moment of high inspiration, with or without Monteverdi’s approval. In any case, the duet provides a ravishing and incomparably cynical finish for the story of Nero, who put aside his wife, condemned his mentor Seneca, and crowned the prostitute Poppea his Empress of Rome.

The myriad glories of J.S. Bach’s music tend to obscure what a terrific tunesmith he was. He could come up with both grand themes and little tunes that sound artless but aren’t. For an example of the latter, there’s his all too famous but still lovely “Sheep May Safely Graze,” in which he begins with a lilting pastoral melody of his own, moves to a traditional Lutheran hymn, then combines the two in effortless counterpoint. It’s been regularly arranged for various ensembles, but this is the original version. Bach’s epic St. Matthew Passion paints the death of Christ as a universal story of love, loss, and grieving. Here’s an aria from that passion, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.” What gives this aria about love and loss a place in my heart is a warmth and tenderness in the melody that is as secular as sacred, and its heart-tugging hook on the line Ich will Jesum selbst begraben—“I will myself bury Jesus.”

Franz Schubert was one of the most spectacular born melodists. He wrote more than 600 songs, and any number of them testify to his singular gift. “Tränenregen” (“Rain of Tears”) is part of his song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter). Schubert virtually created the style of German art song for the rest of the Romantic century, based on a sophisticated transmutation of folk music. Notice the highly Schubertian turn to a minor key at the end: That’s where the tears start, and the tragic denouement of the story is foreshadowed.

Not all beautiful tunes are sad, though a disproportionate number are, thanks to a universal human quirk: Sadness is more interesting than happiness, and thus more creatively productive. From the German 19th century let’s move to an American tunesmith of that century, Stephen Foster, who set himself up as the first professional songwriter in the country. In an age long before mass media, Foster’s tunes traveled around the world. Still, he didn’t end well. He spent his pathetic last years virtually living in a saloon, writing tunes on a barrelhead for quick sale to buy whiskey. One of his most familiar is “Jeanie With the Light-Brown Hair,” with its tone of gentle passion soaring upward on “borne like a vapor on the summer air.” It has been championed by everybody from Jascha Heifetz to Spike Jones. As an example of its universality, here’s a choral version by the National Taiwan University Chorus.

As noted above, symphonic themes tend to be less tuney, more open-ended, because what’s important is what can be made of them, what happens to them over time. What I’m calling a tuney tune has a beginning, middle, and end, and in a long piece, what can you do but play it again louder, or something? Johannes Brahms produced one of the most ubiquitous melodies of all time with his “Lullaby,” originally written for an old inamorata who’d gone on to have a kid with somebody else. Its accompaniment is based on a Viennese song the lady used to sing to him. Here and there in his instrumental music Brahms let fly with a stupendous tune, and one of them is the third movement of his Third Symphony. I suspect Brahms knew that with this one he had a hit on his hands. The movement is the theme over and over in changing orchestral garb, with a bit of B section. I have a theory that nobody forgets the first time they hear this uncannily beautiful, heartrending, sui generis music.

In American popular music, the superstar of the middle decades of the last century was George Gershwin, who wrote his first hit, “Swanee,” in about 10 minutes at age 20, while riding a bus (or so he claimed). That song paid the rent for the rest of his life. He went on to a long row of tremendous songs, and meanwhile taught himself to be a symphonic composer as well. In his short life the climax of that development was Porgy and Bess, the greatest American opera and a timeless example of how to make a successful crossover, in this case between opera and Broadway. Its most famous aria is, of course, “Summertime,” but the one that moves me most in this tale of a crippled beggar and his drug-addicted lover is “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” which is equally a true operatic aria at the service of the story, and a moving and unforgettable melody on its own. In both words and music, it manages to bring together powerful feeling and incipient heartbreak—it’s a tragic love song. This clip is from the Trevor Nunn BBC production conducted by Simon Rattle.

That kind of crossover went in the other direction with the work of Kurt Weill, a classically and Germanically trained composer who discovered a populist strain when he got involved with lefty playwright Bert Brecht. Their most celebrated collaboration was The Three-Penny Opera. Its leading tune, “Mack the Knife,” was a hit in the ’50s for Bobby Darin. I’m kind of flummoxed by my own affection for this song, because there’s practically nothing to it: two simple little phrases mainly designed to project a long and nasty lyric. My favorite version of it is the scraggly and vital rendition, with equally scraggly pit band, by Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife, for whom the song was written. The words are a narrative of rapine and murder, set with bitter irony to a sweet pop tune—that being Brecht and Weill in a nutshell.

Finally we arrive at modern pop music. Here we run into my feeling that on the whole, our pop tunes, including ones I happen to like, are not particularly tuney. A semi-exception to that pattern are some songs of the Beatles—I suspect the ones that Paul McCartney was mainly responsible for. One of the few examples in the last half-century of a popular standard in the traditional sense is McCartney’s “Yesterday.” Here’s a tuney tune par excellence. McCartney’s own original version is interestingly straight-ahead and a bit brisk in tempo, given its theme of lost love. (The words, for me, are spotty at best, but the tune unforgettable.) George Martin’s string-quartet arrangement gives it elegant support.

So what about the present, many of you will ask. I admit that in pop music I’m not much involved with the present, and new classical music these days is not much involved with tunes. My composer colleague Andy Vores maintains that true melodies are founded on traditional harmony, and when that harmony is put aside, as in much of today’s concert music, melody in the traditional sense is impossible. I don’t agree that it’s impossible; even a tonally free, unaccompanied melody can work if it has a coherent pattern and some emotional center. But indeed, in the classical world there have not been a lot of tunes out there lately. Meanwhile, much pop of the last decades is founded on what has been called “performers’ music,” which means that you’re into the performer and their image, and maybe the lyrics, and the notes as such don’t matter so much.

But what about my title, the most beautiful melody in the world? Actually, I have a definition of that vaporous entity: The most beautiful melody  in the world is the one that at the moment you can’t get out of your head. Not in the sense of worming annoyingly into your mind, but rather of somehow capturing something important and moving to you in particular, which may or may not be something that moves the masses. For me, off and on for some time, it’s been a relatively obscure Yiddish song from 1911: “Mayn rue Plats,” which I find passionately, sadly, hauntingly beautiful. Also subtly ironic, because I don’t ultimately believe in art that flaunts its politics, even when I agree with the politics. This is a high-leftist song by Morris Rosenfeld, who was known as “the sweatshop poet.” (Here’s a translation of the words.) I always appreciate it when art violates my principles and still works. This one does. From the first time I heard it, I was transfixed. Like a haunting face, like love, that’s what a great melody can do for you.

* * *

This piece I hope will be a provocation for readers to cite their own favorites in the comments, including recent pop that’s largely out of my own purview. In my next article, I’ll nominate some whole pieces for most beautiful in the world, which is a quite different matter than having a beautiful tune.