Why modern rock music, movie music, and even classical music sucks: Good melodies are gone

January 15, 2020 • 11:00 am

Reader Bryan called my attention to the 13-minute video below made by “Inside the Score”, a person who usually posts discussions of classical and film music (his/her Patreon account is here).  This video diverges a bit from that theme, but I think it’s on the right track. Bryan said this about the video:

WEIT readers have lamented modern music, in comparison to older music. This YouTube piece discusses a particular trend in many number 1 hits: weak to no melody.

Here’s the YouTube notes:

Article: “Where Did the Melody Go?” – written by Yuval Shrem, in Keyboard Magazine

Video: What Makes Good Melody

This video explores the Death of Melody – a phenomenon observed in pop music, film music, and even classical music Examples range from Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, One Direction, and Billie Eilish, to DJs, Remix culture, James MacMillan, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and so on! Towards the end, we talk about musical hooks, and such, and how rap, hip-hop, and the likes have changed the way we think about melody.

The author documents the decline of melody in pop and rock, and although he gives anecdotal examples from people like Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish as melody-poor (and those of Eric Clapton, Queen, and the Beatles as melody-rich), I think the death of melody is something that anyone would notice who’s followed the modern history of popular music.

He does consider the riposte that “melody is just out of fashion”, and that’s probably true, but it surely hasn’t made modern rock and pop very good. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly—to the irritation of many—modern pop and rock hits are not going to be heard on “oldies” stations in the future. Taylor Swift will not be seen in fifty years as someone who produced music as iconic as did the Beatles.

At the end, the author offers several theories about why melody is dying, and, though I can’t prove it, I think the idea that people in the tweet-heavy digital age “don’t want longer streams of thought any more: they just want something bite-sized, immediately digestible, which can both satiate them and numb them immediately.” Why? Perhaps because more complex melodies require more attention, and that attention span has shortened.

Don’t think melody is dead? Here’s the immensely popular Taylor Swift with her top ten hit from last summer, “You Need to Calm Down.” Catchy melody, eh? NOT! I just googled “Taylor Swift latest hit” and this is what I got. Granted, it has a progressive anti-homophobic message, but that’s all it’s got. Not only that, but it’s too heavy-handed and preachy.

Contrast that with other earlier “progressive” social-justice songs like “Blackbird” (Beatles) or “Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. No contest!

(The following song may begin with an ad.)

I aso know that Lizzo is very popular these days, so I Googled “Top hit Lizzo” and got this one from 2017. It, too, is tuneless, but that’s because it’s got rap-like overtones, and rap, of course, has hardly any melody.

163 thoughts on “Why modern rock music, movie music, and even classical music sucks: Good melodies are gone

  1. I go elsewhere for my music. There seems to be an awful lot of really great traditional and traditional-derived music available these days. I recently stumbled on The Devil Makes Three for example. Have a listen and feel better! (Often rather dark lyrics, though.)

    1. This seems a more likely explanation to me. People are still making good melodies but they just don’t get the social media hits that are required to make a star these days. Consumers seem to want to hear from personalities rather than good musicians.

      Any tips on how to find the good stuff? Obviously if one knows the name of a good musician, their work can be found via search. I’m more interested in some sort of curated source where one can reliably encounter good artists and their music. Something much better than random search.

      1. I’ve found this to be difficult in that it takes a large investment in time. If you don’t mind that then of course it isn’t hard.

        The two ways I search for new music are . . .

        1) Just keep an ear / eye out for recommendations from others, such as threads like this one on WEIT or friends.

        2) Go down the youtube rabbit hole. This is the one that can eat up lots of time, but it can also be fun. You start with one lead, perhaps from number 1 above, and then sift through all the recommendations youtube gives you. Next thing you know 2 hours have gone by and you’ve got half a dozen windows open and three times that in songs / artists that you want to follow up on. In such a session I’ll usually find at least a couple of new things I really like and lots of recordings of old stuff that I really like.

        1. I’ve taken a similar approach but it mostly points back in time – and to composers who are gone. Indeed, I discovered that I never knew them to begin with.

        2. Yes, it’s a big time suck.

          One thing that sort of worked was listening to some of the channels on Sirius satellite radio. Each channel is essentially a curated stream. Somehow I let my subscription lapse last year but I keep thinking I should renew it. Never seem to get around to it.

          Some of the online services will make recommendations based on stuff you listen to but, knowing the state of AI tech, I have my doubts about such a process.

          1. I like the Sirius channel Spectrum…I think it’s #28. They play classics from the 60’s and 70’s (and other decades) mixed with contemporary and brand new releases. Lots of melodic music and some without and they never play crap like Taylor Swift, Boy Bands and the like.

      2. I used the music offerings of a certain tech company from Cupertino – with hesitation- but it turned up a few gems that I a actually purchased and it helped me navigate (rather, the computer did the navigation). I listen and decide. It really helps with classical, where the instrumentation alone can vary so much, that it sounds strange in one setting (orchestra in car) and astonishing in another (piano trio in a living room)…. and the quantity is so large – like Bach or Mozart.

        1. I myself use the service from Mountain View (Google music) and if I listen for a while, I can usually find something I like.

          (Disclaimer: I don’t like Google as a company, but their music service is reasonably good.)

      3. I’ve found interesting music by reading about the bands and composers that I like and finding out what artists influenced them. I’ve found countless bands that way. Sometimes I look up a particular musician or genre on Wikipedia, gather names, and then look them up on Youtube, Spotify, or Google Music. It doesn’t always yield good results, but I usually find something worth hearing.

      4. Try BBC Radio 6, which has loads of good stuff, old and new. Not sure how you get it outside Britain, but some people certainly do.

        1. Thanks for the tip! I just signed up for free and I’m listening to it now. I like what I hear so far though I doubt the particular tune I’m hearing now would pass the “great melody” test. I like great melodies too but some good music lacks in the melody dimension.

      5. Also I think it depends on the kind of music.

        Jazz and improvised music is player-based, so you want to know the personnel on each recording. This will keep one busy a while. But I say this because the computer programs seem not to account for this specifically and the recordings as presented on the Internet don’t always list the personnel.

  2. I worry that we feel this way simply because we’re old. Well, I am anyway. Virtually everyone likes best music that was popular when they were in their twenties.

    On the other hand, modern music seems objectively poor as “The Death of Melody” video establishes.

    I do take issue with the narrator’s claim that melody includes the other dimensions: tone, harmony, etc. Sure, one can look at it that way but it undercuts his analysis.

    1. I think both positions are correct. A lot (most?) of popular music is pretty dreadful, IMO, for reasons stated above. But there’s an awful lot of really good music being made these days, too. You just have to look around.

      I’m old, too. When I say “Hey Siri, play music I like” I get a mix of stuff any Boomer would recognize and a lot of new stuff that is really quite good. Siri seems to know a lot about me. 😉

    2. “I worry that we feel this way simply because we’re old. Well, I am anyway. Virtually everyone likes best music that was popular when they were in their twenties.”

      People are certainly “primed” on the music they grew up with, but I don’t think that age is the main factor. I see high school kids wearing Led Zeppelin and The Doors shirts on the bus. Same thing goes for the music that I hear them play at the guitar store. The music of the late 60s and 70s seems to have lasted the test of time. Conversely, I haven’t noticed much interest in music from the 80s and 90s in the younger generation. It also helps that so much music is available to people today. Kids are lucky to grow up with spotify, where they can listen to decades of music for free.

      1. Next time you see any of these kids wearing shirts emblazoned with names of old rock stars, ask them to name even ONE song from said band(s). Don’t be shocked if they can’t name any. Its che trendy to wear such shirts these days. Doesn’t mean the kids wearing them actually know or care about these bands.

        I have a part time job which exposes me to large numbers of Millenials and Gen Zers every weekend. The number of these people who ask to listen to Classic Rock are very small. For every person that wants to listen to Classic Rock, and least ONE HUNDRED want to listen to Hip Hop. Please don’t be deluded into thinking that music from our generation has a large following with young people.

        In fact, one Youtube music video I recently watched had a comment which stated all of the cliches you see in the comments sections of these music videos. One such comment was ” I am 22, and I HATE current music. I really LOVE the music of my parents and grandparents. This comment elicited several responses, the funniest of which was “I am a fetus. I’m not even born yet, but I KNOW I hate current music. I can’t wait to be born,so I can listen to music from the 60s and 70s”

  3. the part with Copland gave me some hope :

    components of music (not in particular order):

    1. melody
    2. harmony
    3. rhythm
    4. tone color

    … perhaps the sum of the four components is the same, with – in modern times – melody has simply shrunken while rhythm has overwhelmed the music. Perhaps the tone color (I’m not sure what that is yet) also, e.g. real intense buzzy sounds in the rhythm.

    the Eilish tune to me expresses TONS of ATTITUDE. I don’t know what the words are, but it makes me feel “I don’t care” or “So what” or other such anti-this or anti-that youthful rebellion attitudes… a fifth component perhaps – the vocal? a sixth – the video so we can SEE the artists and feel like we know them (this is a Fantasyland tenet)?

    oh man, it’s only Wednesday, and this post is up? I’m done for.

    … I love the Jack Sparrow theme! Might have to get it!…

    1. the narrator suggests the idea of how melody has shrunken in the part about Zimmer’s work on Interstellar, Inception and Dunkirk which have “amazing” entries of the other three…

    2. On the other hand, if rhythm was really expanding, and competing with melody, why is it (in pop/rock) so dull or repetitive?

      When has anyone heard a triplet or waltz-like tune? Anything in 3? I suppose it’s rare anyway, but I think rhythm has more grown out of control, than genuinely blossomed.

  4. I see parallels between the current loss of melody in music and the growing disdain over the 20th century for figurative art and rhyming, cadenced poetry. It’s all of a piece and, perhaps coincidentally, it is all easier to produce and, perhaps, consume.

    But the recency of trends often lends them a salience that is confused with durability. The child prodigy performer and composer, of opera no less, Alma Deutscher sharply laments the loss of melody in one of her online videos. So much of the music written today is not beautiful, she says, but I want to write music that is beautiful. And, in my view, she does. There is hope for the future and, in the meantime, we can listen to music from the past.

    1. I’ve been captured by Alma – to illustrate your comment, I’d point to the Siren Sound Waltz at her Carnegie Hall debut – taking quotidian noise and transforming it to something beautiful. I was entranced by Alma when Stephen Fry promoted her playing. What can you say – she’s talented!

        1. Not a big deal, but Alma, her parents, and I … politely request to not compare her to Mozart. I know it is tempting, but it detracts. She is herself.

        2. Mozart captivates not only for the beauty of the music, aptitude, and the fantastical allure of his bio – but also the volume of material. By by the age of 10, I *think* Mozart had a larger number of pieces written than Deutscher, though the range might be comparable (opera, concerto, orchestral piece).

          Opera is a big bar to clear technically. Deutscher wrote her first opera at age 7. Mozart’s first (and less well known) opera was in 1767, just over age 11.

          But so what? I think this illustrates in addition to the next comment by John Donohue, that ranking up number of pieces, instrumentation, and age is more-or-less meaningless beyond a well-intentioned flattery. It is interesting to line up composers side-by-side – e.g. Bach to Mozart – and see what interesting differences are found by bean counting. But after that – what does it mean? Bach wins? Mozart wins?

  5. Melody is out of Classical/Serious music since Puccini and Rachmaninov expired. The subsequent disaster is a result of Dada et al. A detour into Broadway did not save the day. The disdain for melody (and harmony) filtered down into popular music.

    Here is the hope of the world. Alma Deutscher.

    She is not “just” a prodigy. She is the real damn thing. We are hearing her juvenalia now, but “she has melody.” Her power is only now gathering. I have watched many prodigies and hopeful ventures into a healing for five decades, only to be dissapointed. Alma is the real damn thing.

    Alma’s manifesto on melody:

    This is her most mature composition, an art song fully equal to Schubert.

  6. Perhaps music has come to its natural end, since all melodies over the three chords I-IV-V have already been composed.

  7. Couple points

    First, no artist will ever have the cultural impact of a group like the Beatles. That does not, by any means, suggest that no artists will ever be as good as the Beatles. The Beatles were (and are) excellent, but a lot of their impact was culturally contingent. The modern musical landscape is much different, at once over-saturated and highly fragmented, meaning that sort of singular, almost monolithic cultural impact is almost impossible to achieve.

    Second, good rock music is not dead. Good popular rock music is dead, no doubt about it, but there are a lot of artists producing great music these days who just don’t reach the heights of a number-one billboard single. Producers and labels have dialed in on cheap, lowest common denominator success, meaning most of what sells these days is a bunch of synthesized beeps and bloops. But there are still artists shredding out impressive licks and assembling impressive melodies—you just have to take the time to look past the youtube celebrities and top 40 radio hits.

    Finally, sh*tty music like Taylor Swift will almost certainly have a life beyond the modern charts, because appeal isn’t dictated chiefly by quality. Folks will want to hear the garbage popular today because it reminds them of special times from the remember when. Nostalgia, for better or worse, will always sell.

    1. “Nostalgia, for better or worse, will always sell.”
      A terrible thought just occurred to me – the industry KNOWS this and is computing the best music to put out over the long term.

  8. About three years ago, I went to a symphony concert of new music. Most of it struck me as characterless and uninteresting, but one feature was perhaps revealing. All the composers, were relatively young, local
    contemporaries, and most of them partly supported themselves by writing musical background for video games.

  9. Melody still exists in pop music. It’s just that bands that are melodic tend to be on the sidelines during a time when people want to have a hypnotic “groove” in the songs they listen to.

    Here are a few examples of songs from recent years (mostly from the last decade but all from this century) that are very melodic:

    “Blizzard of ’77” by Nada Surf

    “Fire in the Canyon” by Fountains of Wayne

    “From Your Favourite Sky”

    “Hold on Hope” by Guided by Voices

    “Amazing Glow” by The Pernice Brothers

    And lastly a favorite from The Ditty Bops, a now defunct band (two women). They wrote songs that were redolent of ragtime, western swing, and music hall.

    “Wishful Thinking”

      1. I saw The Ditty Bops three times! Too bad they broke up. They were married to each other. A divorce, maybe? Or maybe they decided, as a musical duo, that they had run out of steam.

        1. Interesting band & new to me. The Ditty Bops didn’t break up as far as I can tell & they’re most probably still a unit [see below] musically & personally. They were interested in live touring & live music in general & I would suppose that they’re at a stage in life – going into their 40s, where other interests dominate [kids?].

          They put out new [I assume new, but I don’t know their catalogue] child-like, short tunettes roughly every six months on their YouTube HERE. They’ll probably pop up again in some Californian cafe/bar being bizarre & original. I can hear, after a v. quick listen, a bit of Zappa in their vocal phrasings.

          1. I didn’t know the Bops were still around. I don’t like what I’m hearing at this YouTube channel. It appears they decided to jettison their original sound and go for something entirely different for the children’s market. Oh well.

            1. I agree. They’re not doing what made them special [from the videos I’ve watched] at all. One or both of them is bound to get the itch to gig again, so there’s always hope.

  10. For reasons beyond my control, I must listen to some $#*%##!station playing top 40 just about every day. I cannot stand the large numbers of tracks with their pretentious, minimalist style. Practically sung a cappella, with snapping fingers being the main music track. You could put in more notes with two fingers on a piano designed for toddlers.

    Then, if I hear third-rate music from the say the ’60’s and ’70’s -songs that were played often, but were mediocre and forgettable.. no contest. They were far, far richer.

    1. “You could put in more notes with two fingers on a piano designed for toddlers.”

      This reminds me of “Sweet Pea” by Amos Lee that comes up on my Pandora sometimes after I repeatedly “thumbs down” it. The older “Sweet Pea” is a different song and much better. Pandora is good because you can “train” your stations by clicking “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, or not clicking anything. Based on what you like and don’t like, you can get a good bunch of songs playing in a month or so. Different stations can be created at the same time. It will throw in some new (even if it’s new for a ‘50s station like a ‘50s song that hasn’t been played yet) songs and play mostly what you’ve trained it to play. I hear new music this way sometimes and some of it’s good. This is how I have heard Amos Lee’s “Sweet Pea” even though I don’t like it. It’s free with a commercial or two maybe every seven (?) songs give or take. I think it’s around $7 a month without commercials.

      Amos Lee – “Sweet Pea” with Lyrics

      Tommy Roe – “Sweet Pea”

    2. Perhaps its too late, but could you please give examples of what you consider “third rate music” from the 60s and 70s? Thank you

      1. There’s piles of it. Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap (except on the internet, where Sturgeon’s Law is squared or cubed due to no quality control).

        1. I am proud (in a perverse sense of the word) to own two vinyl copies of Philosophy of the World. One still in its original Tower Records shrink wrap.

  11. If it were not for old music radio stations, I would have no need for radio. Those two video songs on the posting, I could not get through them, let alone buy them.

    1. I used to joke that being a disc jockey at a Classic Rock station was the easiest job in the world. Go to work, play the same 200 songs over and over for forty years, retire.

      But Classic Rock playlists have recently expanded. Songs from the 80s and early 90s are now included. Hair metal (yuck), U2, REM, Nirvana, etc. So now its the second easiest job. Go to work, [play 300 songs over and over for forty years, retire

  12. Those examples by Taylor Swift and Lizzo are really dire. I fail to see anything interesting in them.

    Somehow the breathy, tuneless, 3-note range style of singing has come to dominate all the singer-songwriter genre (is that supposed to sound “serious” or something?).

    I mostly listen to stuff like Martin Sexton and Show of Hands these days.

      1. Indeed: No melody, since most of them can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

        How can you put yourself out there as a singer-songwriter with “tunes” that have no melody? I don’t get it [it: why this dreck is popular].

        There are exceptions, of course:
        Martin Sexton (but he’s been around 1992, jebus, that’s almost 30 years ago!)
        Amos Lee
        Jason Isbell
        John Mayer
        The Wailin’ Jennys
        Many others I don’t know I’m sure

  13. Of the film composers working today, my favorite is Carter Burwell, who has scored most of the Coen brothers’ films (the ones, that is, that don’t have a popular music soundtrack curated by T Bone Burnett) and two of Martin McDonagh’s (Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards), among many others. I’m especially thinking of the haunting, melodic themes he wrote for Fargo and Miller’s Crossing (below).

    But then those two films are from the ’90s (and the theme from Miller’s Crossing, a film about Irish mobsters, is derived from a Celtic folk song), so maybe they are the exceptions that prove “Inside the Score”‘s rule.

  14. Odd to have to say, but if you want to find current popular music with complexity, harmony, and melody, go country. I have gained more and more respect for this genre over the years.

  15. There was once a literal Trio with a song called “Da Da Da” that garnered mainstream succes (sold 13 million copies). It could have been featured in the video, but it would ruin the argument. That song was meant satirical, a minimalist mocking of shallow musical qualities, while also exaggerating and indulging in them (we might call it metamodernist today). This was in 1982. They were referring to usual popular music.

    Take a “melody” in a random peak rock’n’roll era song, which amount to “doop doop whap dee doo” and that’s about as melodic as it gets. They have a handful of chords typically following a blues sheme, and there’s little that would count as melody by the video’s standards.

    Anything goes with cherrypicking, but I am going with a classic decade from 1959 to 1969. I hope that’s not an unfair choice. Wikipedia lists only three songs that dominated the billboards for whole nine weeks, the very top of the decade. One is “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin (1959). It’s mostly Bobby halfway-shouting-barely-singing over bog-standard chords. Then there’s Percy Faith’s “Theme From A Summer Place” (1960), which is repetitive in the way lamented in the video or at the very least not making a good case for a Golden Age of Melody. Only the third has what could count as melodious and that’s “Hey Jude” (1968), but interestingly, it’s also a song with a drawn out, repetitive chorus at the end. I have no problem with repeating whatever by whichever standard, but the example shows that the case is overstated.

    The inclusion of techno into the video was a hoot. This music emerged for trance-like, meditative “raves” and the repetition is the point. It’s dance music invented for a drug-infused club scene, not meant to listening to attentively on the couch.

    There’s a better argument out there. In a landscape of endless streaming content, it’s becoming rare that people just sit or lay there and attentively listen to an album. Music is now overwhelmingly produced for different contexts and purposes and this is reflected in the music itself, including its melodies (or lack thereof).

    Popularity might measure the popularity of those contexts. At some point it was dancing with your teenage love. At some point it was clubbing. At some point it’s having something upbeat yet agreeable that enhances office life. And so on. It does not reflect what exists and in which quantity or quality.

    1. “There was once a literal Trio with a song called “Da Da Da” that garnered mainstream succes (sold 13 million copies).”

      This song somehow made a comeback in the early to mid ’90s. I *hated* this song. Hated it.

  16. Unfortunately we’re in for more Swift type. My neighbor is taking guitar lessons. Periodically they have recitals and she always invites me. There is one young girl, about 14 I think, who writes and plays her own stuff. I have observed her playing and endured her singing. Her hand does not move from one position on the instrument. I asked my neighbor about this, I don’t know how to play a guitar but I do play a violin and I thought this was some special technique,even though it was quite apparent tonally there was no change. It was decided by us we had another Swift on the way..

    1. In certain genres of rock, its common to play a combination of chords and open notes. The sound would be more complex than the hand movements would indicate

  17. Interesting article, thanks for pointing us to it.

    I also regard music as having 4 components, though my 4 components are

    twiddly bits

    This leads to my contention that “rock” (broadly defined) is the best form of music because it is the only one that fully uses all of these.

    Classical is great for melody/harmony and twiddly bits, not so great for the others.

    Rap (now) only has rhythm/beat (even the vocals are really just another element of the rhythm/beat), and isn’t even very good at that. EDM is rhythm/beat with a few twiddly bits, current pop is rhythm/beat with autotuned vocals etc.

    1. I love rock, but classical music can express states of mind that rock can’t. Classical allows a composer to stretch out and explore ideas that the rock format can’t accommodate.

      That being said, I wouldn’t want to give up one or the other.

      1. And clearly rock can express states of mind that classical cannot. Comparing numbers of mind states expressible in the two genres you are wasting your time, IMHO. Just say you prefer classical to rock and be honest about it.

        1. I do not necessarily prefer classical to rock. And I am not wasting my time. Both genres have value and I don’t think that one is better than the other, as the original poster stated.

          In the same way, a short story can be enjoyable, but a novel allows the author more room to develop characters and themes. (Another analogy: a stand-alone movie versus a mini-series.) The two genres fulfill different purposes. Neither is better than the other. That is my point.

          1. “In the same way, a short story can be enjoyable, but a novel allows the author more room to develop characters and themes.”

            You are still saying one genre is better than another in some dimension and expressing a preference for one over the other. That’s what I was reacting to.

            1. To amplify my earlier analogy: A movie like Traffic is good if you want a standalone piece of entertainment that can be consumed in one sitting. If you have more time to spare, then you might watch Breaking Bad. Both are worth watching, and neither is superior to the other.

              In the same way, you can read a haiku or you can read an epic like The Iliad. One form values brevity, one values expansiveness.

              Different art forms are judged by different criteria. Rock is simple and direct, classical is subtle and nuanced. I enjoy each depending on my mood.

    2. “Classical is great for melody/harmony and twiddly bits, not so great for the others.”

      I have to disagree here. It depends on whether you want the rhythm to be there when you listen or to come up and slap you in the face. Listen to the syncopations in Brahms or the wildly varying rhythms in “Le sacre du printemps” — which I consider to be lyrical, meaning I can hum along with lots of it.

      Classical melody starting getting weird with Mahler and Schönberg even before the latter went over to 12 tones. Just takes getting used to.

      I guess the music I like the best is the sort I had to practice getting to know.

      As for tone color, a battery of guitars is no replacement for a symphony orchestra — or the Dave Brubeck Quartet! (Am I showing my age?)

      1. I’d suggest checking out Steve Reich – modern composer. I just recently learned about his stuff. Uses phasing, clapping. If you know King Crimson’s Discipline group, when the two guitars do the same pattern off by an eighth note, it’s that sort of thing.

        1. Have you heard ‘Six Marimbas’ by Reich? That’s my favourite of the things he’s done. Like all his pieces, it slowly shapeshifts throughout, very subtly altering mood as it does so.

          Somehow the marimba feels like the instrument most suited to Reich’s experiments.

    3. Many years ago, I read a comment from somebody who was complaining that typical rock lyrics are unintelligible. One response claimed that lyrics in Rock music do not need to be intelligible, because their main purpose was to carry the melody, because by and large the guitars were not performing that particular task

  18. Ever since I watched Jerry’s posting of the Beatles marionettes I’ve had that melody replaying over and over in my head.


    This is why the youth of today reject strong melodies. Who wants a tune stuck on repeat in one’s head?

  19. Although I’m a great fan of Baroque music, there is not much music I really dislike. Depends a bit in the time of the day too. In the morning Bach is best.
    Is there any more invigorating music early in the morning? later in the morning Händel is great too
    Later in the day we like something Jazzy like say Simpiwe Dana
    (the video tends to detract from the music, which I consider brilliant).
    It is like books, there are no bad ‘genres’ there are even detectives that are masterpieces. There are no bad styles of music, either, even the much disliked (by me) Rap, Kwaito or HipHop can deliver something haunting and agreeable in the evening.
    (again, it is better without the video).
    There is so much good music, one could give literally hundreds of pieces that are beautiful, also in contemporary music.

    1. “Depends a bit in the time of the day too. ”


      Also what room one is in. Car, bus, living room, Symphony Hall…

      It took a long time to realize how big a difference it makes. Otherwise, there’s a fight against it, of some sort. Picking the right music for the room can settle things, I think.

  20. Kids these days! Really, I heard all these same arguments when I was younger and now oldies stations play Black Sabbath and television commercials feature Led Zeppelin, Motorhead, and Adam Ant for Peet’s sake. The blanket dismissal of that which is not of your cultural milieu is too common, and I think it is a mistake to predict that this generation of music will not produce its share of culturally relevant material.

    I have recently been reading Jimmy Web’s book Tunesmith and even back in the late 1990s when it was written he lamented the loss of melody in favor of rhythm. So this is not a new trend. He hoped it had already reached its zenith, but hindsight shows the opposite. That doesn’t mean that its bad.

    Finally, a quick review of Wikipedia shows that the last #1 pop song before the Beatles hit was “There! I’ve Said It Again” by Bobby Vinton. The song charted at No. 1 on January 4, 1964 for four weeks. Never heard of it before. Every generation produces popular dreck along with the enduring stuff.

    1. It is bad, in my opinion. I care very much for melody in songs.

      I play guitar, mostly fingerstyle arrangements, mostly classical, folk, and rock stuff (yes, I can play Stairway to Heaven, Classical Gas, Blackbird, Here Comes the Sun, etc., along with Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Neil Gow’s Lament for His Second Wife [hey, what about the first wife?!], Parkening’s arrangement of Gymnopedie No. 1, etc.) which I really only introduce to set up for:

      For me, if it doesn’t have a strong and appealing melody, with very few exceptions, I’m just not very interested.

  21. I don’t follow pop music much, but simplistic beat seems to be driving out the melody. I suspect the medium is driving this, when you can just hit next, next, next until something catches. You couldn’t do that with records or tape (you could kind of do it with 8-track).

    Also, the age of the group selecting the (pop) music is becoming younger and younger – imagine if 12 to 16 year olds became the ones deciding which books get published.

    1. “Also, the age of the group selecting the (pop) music is becoming younger and younger”

      It seems to be the same with movies these days, with all the Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars franchises. Adults are being slowly pushed out of pop culture.

  22. This subject has come up before at WEIT. I simply reject the idea that music is somehow worse than it was in the sixties. I won’t convince WEIT, but then WEIT will not convince me.

    Specifically W/R/T melody though: I think the way melody is used in general has evolved over time. Think of the melodies two centuries ago, many of which piled in as many notes as possible, and were complicated and extended…does that make them melodically more interesting or impactful than, say, Perfect Day, which is melodically quite basic by comparison? I don’t think so.

    Over time, melodies have become simpler. There has been a shift, and I’m pretty confident that it was a collective artistic choice, although not necessarily conscious.

    The baroque flourishes of classical music have been eschewed by modern classical composers, not because audiences are less sophisticated than they used to be, but because they are MORE sophisticated, and we have more of an appreciation for subtle melodies than we did in the past. I much prefer the subtlety of a Brian Eno piece, or John Adams, Gorecki(I mean, his stuff is incredibly minimal, yet evokes maximal emotions) to something written by Liszt or Mozart. I do not find the profusion of notes in the latter’s pieces interesting.

    Really, the question of how simple or complex a melody is is irrelevant. What matters is how much it moves you, how much it flicks that little warm, honey-gold module in your brain. (That makes it sound like I have a musical brain clitoris…which is about right)

    I get just as much, often more, satisfaction from listening to something as simple and spare as, say, William Basinski, or Max Richter, as I do from something as melodically convoluted and overblown as ‘Wuthering Heights’. I find it baffling that the length of a melody would make the blindest bit of difference to one’s enjoyment. That seems arbitrary, and I could just as well claim that what has happened over the years is that melodies have become purer, more efficient and honed, better at evoking emotion using less notes…as well as more subtle, since they evoke more complicated emotions than melodies in the past.

    At the end of the day though, remember that what you hear in your head is completely different from what another person hears. I hear something beautiful when I listen to the following: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPa6c109rvo while someone else just hears some minor chords being played over and over for three minutes while a violin plays a minimal, nothing-y melody over the top.

    This is why we love music, how endlessly personal it is to us, but it’s also why claims that certain eras are objectively ‘better’ just don’t make any sense.

    1. A modern composer I recently got hip to that you might have an ear for : Ben Johnston – note the spelling, Johnston. I’ve only heard his string quartets.

      1. Kind of intentionally horrible – I see what he’s doing, but just from what I heard on YT it’s not for me, sorry.

        I really love melody, and while I don’t care how simple or complicated it is, I do care if it only inspires ugly emotions in me, which is what the stuff I heard did.

    2. I too lionize almost all music and still manage to find gems in today’s junkyard of compressed-ADD-algorithm adjusted monstrosities. But I even like those too.

      I just can’t help liking most anything…even country music (for educational purposes).

      Music is too interesting, even if it sucks. it certainly helps to have more perspective. If someone is having trouble getting perspective try these:

      Karlheinz Stockhausen
      Iannis Xenakis
      Laurie Spiegel
      John Cage
      (just to list a handful)

      Now, off to listen to some Charles Ives for some meditation.

      1. Music is too interesting, you’re right. Even if I felt the way that WEIT feels about modern music I’d like to think I’d put it down to the fact that as you get older you just don’t feel things as intensely as you did when you were young. Robert Sapolsky’s latest book talks about this at length: emotional responses among adolescents are significantly more intense than those of older people(and younger people too – pre-teens aren’t as emotional as teenagers either).

        We tend to hear our favourite music, see our favourite films, read our favourite books, etc. around the same general age; adolescence through to late adolescence. When I ask people about the things they hold most dearly to their hearts almost without exception it’s something they experienced first when they were young. There’s no reason why that should be the case: it’s a small part of our lives in percentage terms. Yet it’s almost always the case.
        Sure, we listen to great stuff later on, and we can appreciate it just as much, but we don’t tend to feel it as intensely as we do the stuff we hear when we’re young. That’s not a failing, it’s just the way we are; overstuffed with hormones at a certain age and brimming with certainty and thirst for newness…and then that peters out.

        1. Plausible. Depressing. Unlikely to explain everyone.

          there’s maturity, and outgrowing things. The silver lining – the light at the end of the tunnel – something new – something unexpected- at least we can keep looking for them. Music always has it.

          1. Why depressing? I know that as a child I loved Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherezade”, an extraordinarily melodic piece of music, but nothing to compare with, say, Beethoven’s late string quartets. I learned to love them much later and with some labor. But I still adore Scheherezade. First loves are not always forgotten, nor should they be.

            1. the depressing bit is the “…brimming with certainty and thirst for newness…and then that peters out.” and “When I ask people about the things they hold most dearly to their hearts almost without exception it’s something they experienced first when they were young.”

              1. If it sounds depressing, I didn’t mean it to be.

                I still love music just as much as I always have, I just accept I’m not going to feel that same discombobulating hormonal rush I felt when I was a teenager. It’s a calmer, more restrained, more cerebral love that I feel now – not as intense; and also not as one-eyed and certain of its own direction, which means I can pick and choose from genres I’d have sneered at as a teenager.

            2. Side note: Have you heard Maurice Ravel’s “Sheherezade”? It has some similarities to the Rimsky-Korsakov piece. Both are very dramatic pieces that would make good soundtracks to an epic sword-and-sandals historical movie.

    3. Brian Eno? My boyfriend from May 2018 to June 2019 loved Brian Eno. So different. I would say there were hardly any melodies at all. It was like being on Space Mountain. “I will come running to tie your shoes…” I would grasp at that to find some melody. The only song I took out of that was “Time Lapse”. Some of the 70s and early 80s done by a cover band in NYC were okay. He’s brilliant but I don’t know why. I would say because of his collaborations with U2, Coldplay (not sure if Fix You specifically), and others. It’s complex and I can see the beauty. Melody, though? I’d rather listen to classical music than Brian Eno. Not for me.

      1. Eno describes himself as a non-musician who collaborates with musicians. He is comfortable with sound-production by any means & then turning the result into ‘tape loops’ & effects that can go onto a keyboard-type synthesizer and/or mixer with dials & slides.

        “When I say ‘musician,’ I wouldn’t apply it to myself as a synthesizer player, or ‘player’ of tape recorders, because I usually mean someone with a digital skill that they then apply to an instrument. I don’t really have that, so strictly speaking I’m a non-musician. None of my skills are manual, they’re not to do with manipulation in that sense, they’re more to do with ingenuity, I suppose”

        He claims to have a cheap rubbish guitar he’s never tuned for example – he would run that through a fuzzbox or some such, feed it into a synth as an effect where he can tame it. He has no formal training & I think of him as a painter with a very broad & drippy brush who makes sonic landscapes. I don’t like his solo stuff & I intensely dislike his voice instrument.

        I must catch up with his collaborations, I’m only really familiar with his Roxy Music era collab.


      2. Eno was perfectly capable of writing sweet, catchy pop melodies, eg:


        But it depends on what you mean by melody too. My point is that a melody isn’t necessarily more interesting just because it’s longer and more complex. The following is just a drifting, beautiful collection of chords, with a very simple, barely-there melody slowly creeping across it…


        …but does that make it inherently less interesting than something more obviously melodic? What could be added to it that wouldn’t make it worse? Why is the addition of more notes some kind of measure of quality when it comes to melody?

        1. I didn’t hear the melody really in the second song.

          grasping at straws* (correction from previous comment)

          “This” by Brian Eno is the one song I like. (Not “Time Lapse”)

  23. Most popular music is, has been, and always will be, mediocre at best. The only stuff we still really listen to decades (or centuries) later is the exceptional stuff. The percentage of good to bad – signal to noise if you will – probably varies somewhat, but I suspect that it’s always been the case that everyone with an appreciation of music feels that music is dying in their time. Ditto for literature, art, the quality of education, the character of the younger generation, etc.

  24. Right after the posted video from Inside the Score, the author has another video called What Makes Good Melody. This is beyond the topic of this post, but I found it greatly rewarding. I think it will help me appreciate good music. Have a look if you like.

  25. Who on this site cares about charting music?

    There is more music today than there ever has been in the past Jerry, but I see no growth at all in your list of preferred music – that has two potential explanations & I know what you think the answer is from all your previous posts on this subject.

    It is outside the music machine that we find the wide diversity of music & one needs a map [of sorts] to find destinations harmonious to ones taste. So here is a ‘map’ suggestion: anybody who is into music today necessarily uses ‘apps’, very broadly speaking, to play [or to find] music & to set up their sources to suggest similar stuff to what they ‘like’ & if they really are into new music discovery [many people are not & I think that’s you Jerry] they learn the simple steps to custom tag their music.

    For listeners who go to their own recordings for replaying it is still easy to use an online music version of GOODREADS. i.e. there are many free sites where you set up an account, input your favourite tunes & get a flood of alternate suggestions that you learn how to manage. There is no other way of navigating the vast music scene today unless you have music nerd friends who do that work for you.

    Also – living in Chicago means there’s pots of gold within easy reach: SOME MUSIC VENUES ACROSS GENRES

    Melody/harmony [both vocal & instrumental] are not dying in the least, but it isn’t as central to most music genres as it was & that’s a damned good thing in my opinion. You can’t beat a few lumps & alien spices in the sickly spoonfulls of sugar to create variety & interest – something to give it a life beyond the attention span of the easily ignorable corrupt pop charts nonsense.

    1. Your second sentence is rude and is skirting the Roolz. If you want to criticize me personally for “not growing musically,” then email me, but don’t address (and insult) me personally in a general thread.

  26. The enormous influence of rap and hiphop in commercial pop music over the last three decades is an important factor: rap is primarily a lyric form, rather than a musical one — the words often show a virtuosic invention of baroque ingenuity while musically it’s little more than a form of rhythmic, toneless chanting. But melody still exists in pop music: think of the output of They Might Be Giants, who have been producing literally hundreds of marvellously memorable, melodic, witty songs over the last thirty hears. The key point about them is that they’re real musicians, rather than commercially manufactured acts who have been taught to dance and sing a bit.

  27. Well, this does nothing more than confirming my old theory that Hans Zimmer is just an overerrated composer. The rest of the world (or good part of it) keeps acclaiming Zimmer as the new Mozart and I don’t understand why.

  28. Can’t resist: Here is the top aria from the top opera from the Bel Canto (Beautiful Singing) period. 1830s.

    “Casta Diva”
    from the Opera “Norma”
    by Vincenzo Bellini, 1831
    Soprano Anna Netrebko

    1) yes, I know it takes a while for her to begin singing. Wait for it. Intro is gorgeous.
    2) after the “main” part of the aria of sad beauty, there is an optional second part. Fast and furious. Stupendous high note at the end.
    3) context: Norma is petitioning the Goddess of the Moon to bring peace between the Gauls and Roman occupiers.
    4) fasten seat belts 5:30 – 6:30
    5) some think this aria belongs to Joan Sutherland. I agree … but … Anna!



  29. I can make a counter argument to this in just 6 words
    King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizards
    As eclectic and prolific as Zappa but not retreading the same ground. Do yourself a favour.

  30. Eh, the cultural pendulum swings to and fro. Every generation disdains what their parents liked…and then because their children will do the same, the grandchildren end up bring some things back their grandparents might have liked. Billie Eilish reminds me of Jazz, almost Jazz Scat. Sure, there’s no melody. But if her style of music becomes popular, you can bet your bottom dollar that kids 15 years from now will be rolling their eyes at it and trying, intentionally, to create a sound that doesn’t sound like that “mom music.”

    1. The top-of-the-pop Diva’s may have a homogenized style.

      However, it can occur in “alternative” music as well. I find that alt-female-vocal-driven music often succumbs to the vocal style of “singing as if quaaludes have kicked in hard or they are just waking up from bed.”

      1. That’s weird because, see all those other videos everyone posted? These are the only ones I like. (Other than Alma Deutscher’s charming soliloquies.)

      2. Yep, you nailed that. Alternative is a genre I really like, but it’s great/dreck and dully formulaic/original ratios are not noticeably better than any other genre in my opinion.

        1. Quite edifying thank you. And yet, somehow, I have no doubt anything you or the other delightfully well-versed chap would recommend to me would leave me bored out of my gourd and completely unmoved.

          1. 🙂

            Yes, I think that is only to be expected when it comes to art and humans.

            Personally, over the years I’ve come to notice that in any genre and sub-genre of music I’ve ever come across that there are examples of it that I’ve liked. Even if I hate the genre in general. And very often those pieces that are generally considered to be representative of the best of the genre, I can see, or rather hear, why.

            For an extreme example. I once chaperoned my daughter to a death metal concert. Now, I’ve been called a metal head a few times myself, but generally speaking I’ve got no use for the genre of death metal. Of the three bands playing the main act was a legend of the genre and much more famous than the other 2 bands. And you know what? It was immediately evident as soon as they played their 1st song. I can’t say I liked it, but it was clearly evident that they were better at all aspects of producing this kind music. Composition, instrument skills, vocals (yep, I had to admit that there is talent and skill involved in that silly guttural death metal vocal style), they were clearly better.

          2. Roger,

            Sure. Could be. That’s the nature of taste.
            But if you think that “anything” I would recommend would bore you (I have wide musical interests, I bet many here do), it implies your focus is rather narrow. Which is of course ok too.

            Keeping close to the alt-female vocals theme: Some examples: I prefer for instance Everything But The Girl (especially Amplified Heart and their electronica as well), Laura Veirs (e.g. The Lookout). Grimes (except when she falls too far in to the “quaaludes” sound), Fever Ray (Plunge, electronica-like), Duffy (more mainstream when she was popular), Beth Orton (especially Central Reservation). Joanna Newsom (if you can get past the “people who like anchovies like Newsom” quality of her voice, she is amazing). Also loved Cults (when they were together). Angus & Julia Stone for alt/folk, good stuff.

            One of my favorite bands is the Go!Team which makes sense as they make liberal use of Library Music. I’ve gone down the rabbit hole on Library music, have built a large vinyl collection (e.g KPM, Bruton Music, De Wolfe and many others). It’s an entire alternative universe of music that most people have never been aware even existed and it’s extraordinarily varied and creative.

            Again…just a sample. Don’t expect it to appeal to everyone.

            1. it implies your focus is rather narrow.

              Woah hold on there Nellie. I posted a couple vids and people started attacking me (like I knew they would.). Let’s keep things in perspective lol.

              1. “I have no doubt anything you or the other delightfully well-versed chap would recommend to me would leave me bored out of my gourd and completely unmoved.”

                ^^^ remember, that was the perspective, or context, of my comment. 😉

                If you’d like to say “anything” one of us could recommend to you would leave you bored…well…

                And no one was “attacking” you. It was actually you who came on with the snark.

                Anyway, thanks for the vid links. It’s nice to be exposed to music I haven’t heard, even though those particular pieces weren’t up my alley.

  31. I think it’s possible that the problem are lawsuits. It’s too easy for some melody sounds like a melody in another song. Right now just about every well known pop music composer is involved in a plagiarism lawsuit.

    1. Indeed – this is likely very important to the execs behind the scenes.

      But it makes me wonder- why not sue over the non melodious vocals? Sometimes the only difference seems to be the tone color – the person making the sounds, the processing… oh, maybe that’s it.

  32. Well there’s music for the arhythmic (techno/dance/EDM) and music for the atonal (RAP), and so on. It’s just that in a great big world like this most human impediments are catered for, at least entertainment wise.


    1. And I somehow love that Springsteen sing, and the whole album! Driving in to Darlington County, me and Wayne on the 4th of July🎶

  33. This is an absurd statement. Yes we have less melody-driven music nowadays but my argument is that the lack of melody does not necessitate worse music. Plus I see this argument all the time of someone taking a famous song from the past and comparing it to a song made in the present in order to highlight the “decline” of modern music.
    This is a horrible argument. Of course you can find a Beatles song that has already stood the test of time, that everyone knows and loves, and demonstrate how it is better then a modern pop song. In the same way I could take a modern song that is critically acclaimed like “The Blacker The Berry” by Kendrick Lamar and contrast that with “Revolution 9” by the Beatles to show how music has only improved over time. This argument would also be terrible. The point is, every era of music is constantly changing, none are objectively better or worse than another, it’s just… yknow, evolution.

    1. The question isn’t cherry-picking but whether music has changed on average for the worse. Many people, including professional musicians, think so.

      At any rate, you could have posted your post without the insult that my argument is “absurd”. Did you read the Roolz or are you just an uncivil person?

      And of course there is no OBJECTIVE comparision unless you find out what aspects make music “good” (melody might be one). But I argue that in my subjective view, music has declined. It would be weird if one could define a metric for “good music” (i.e., rock or pop), and then find that the average metric for any period is EXACTLY the same over time. That simply cannot be true.

      And of course there is no group today that even approaches the Beatles in average quality of music.


  34. I’m glad this got bumped into my email today – the 264th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, January 27th, 1756 – so I act on it as an important sign :

    It might be interesting to remove the melodies of important music and see how recognizable they are – I bet they won’t change much – that is, we’ll recognize Sir Duke, Blackbird, All Apologies, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and so on, back to Early Music.

    I’m not sure what the result would be if the Eilish tune, for instance, got the same treatment.

    1. … though come to think of it, the tunes themselves were not new – Moon River and All Night Long. Make of that what you will.

  35. There are some strong ideas on this article that I do agree with to quite a large extent, especially when it comes to Taylor Swift. Although as for Billie Eilish, I have been studying her work a lot recenlty, and I do believe that although some of the melodies fall into that off melody catergory and genergiclally reused beats, and artists like Billie Eilish are gennerally quite ground breaking, her approach and her uprising to fame from such an authentic background is really something to take into admiration. I could go onto explain why she is actually a very influential artist but i wouldn’t want to hog the comment feed.

  36. I definitely agree. Music has fallen on hard times for a while and I really hope these modern artists aren’t remembered in fifty years. Or even five years. Haha. It’s just not what it used to be. Great and informative post!

  37. Agreed, a good and original melody is getting harder to find nowadays, especially in modern pop music. Maybe it’s because learning an instrument has become a bit irrelevant. Music producing software is easily accessible and making a pop beat is not too hard

    1. There’s a place for music producing software, but letting it completely replace the art form that is songwriting I think is the start of a downward trend.

  38. Well sometimes it really seems as if it’s replacing the art form. But I think the software should just be a tool to serve the creative process. At least that’s how I approach music production 🙂

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