Taking the melody

 In Cello Rock

Many rock melodies – defining “melody” as the notes sung by the singer – are really simple. Unless you’ve picked them apart, you might not be aware how simple many of them are. Frequently they consist of a small number of notes, maybe only 3 or 4, repeated over and over. Another thing that has often surprised me regarding all types of melodies – Broadway, American Songbook, folk, rock, blues (maybe not jazz) – is how closely the melody follows the triad or triad+7th of the underlying chord. 

Consider the most extreme example, that of the bugle tune Taps (Day is done, gone the sun…). A bugle can only play a triad, so its notes are limited to 5 notes, only 3 different pitches (1, 3, 5) and the 1 and 5 in the lower octave. Despite this limitation, Taps is a beautiful, haunting melody, and perfectly expresses either the quiet at the end of a day, or dignified sadness at a funeral. All with 3 different notes. Let’s say your band is doing John Lennon’s Imagine. This is one of the best and most beloved songs of the 20th century, much less of just rock. John’s tragic death of course amplifies the pathos of the song, but he could be a hale and hearty 70-something and it would still be a terrific song. (My wife teaches 6th grade, and one of her students asked her to play it in the classroom one day (in 2014). Now that’s a song with staying power!) 

Imagine‘s lyric is probably its strongest point, asking the world to dare to imagine what life would be like if people were just able to live freely, without artificial constraint.

I’d say the second strongest point is the spare instrumentation. There’s just a simple piano comping on simple chords, the drum holding off until 0:45 or so.

John’s singing is and always was one of the best ever. The way everyone responded to his voice is of course one of the reasons the Beatles are the Best Band Ever. I always found it interesting that the slightly nasal quality of John’s voice, something a classically trained voice would never have, is quite common among the best rock singers (Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello come to mind). See http://cebudavao.com/music/rock-singers-who-use-their-noses-when-they-sing/.

But Imagine‘s melody? Just 3 notes – 1 1 1 1 3 3 2 – repeated 4 times before the slight change to accompany “imagine all the people…”. If your singer asked you to “take it” for a verse, that is to play cello against the changes of the verse while the singer took a vocal rest, what would you do? How can you squeeze beauty and pathos and a standing ovation by playing 3 notes in the same order 4 times?

For reference, here’s what that line would be in the key of G:

 The advantage that John Lennon singing Imagine has over you the cellist playing Imagine (funny just to say that) is that the singer has a different lyric for each line. The cello has only notes, no lyrics. So you’re playing with a smaller repertoire, but you still you need to play something gorgeous that doesn’t sound repetitive or boring. 

So here’s a bullet list of suggestions for playing a simple or repetitive melody:

  • Change octaves; play different repetitions of the line in different octaves. Probably start low and go high. For Imagine, you could play lines 1 and 2 in a middle octave, and the 3rd and 4th up an octave. Changing octaves in the middle of a phrase can be tricky: it might sound awkward or forced, or it might sound terrific.
  • Play behind the beat. Where John is singing on the AND of the 1st beat (with the syllable “-ma-” on the 2nd beat), you could wait until the AND of the 3rd beat to enter, and then squeeze the remaining notes in, in a kind of controlled rush.
  • Play ahead of the beat. Sinatra would do this, by pushing the lyric into the first few beats of the measure or phrase, then waiting for the phrase to catch up while he takes a breath (or in Sinatra’s case a drink and a puff on his cigarette). (Listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emAe6IClGys, where Frankie sings ahead of the beat in When I was 17.) If I had to, I’d vote for playing behind the beat over ahead; ahead of the beat just seems harder to make sound unforced and musical.
  • Use the simple melody as a jumping off point. Easier said than done! This is what good soloists actually do, and as you, the cellist playing in a rock band, should also do.

Here is a good example of a simple vocal melody followed by instrumental solos, or “breaks”, that play notes similar to but somewhat different from the vocal melody. It’s an old tune that was famously used in the recent folk song movie Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), and in it the star of that movie sings with 2 well-known bands:

In this terrific live performance, Oscar Isaac sings with Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), with members of the Punch Brothers playing along. After 3 vocal verses, Chris Thile – a mandolin superstar – takes the first break at 1:20. (His solo doesn’t much refer to the melody, he’s too busy embellishing!) Then the fiddler joins in on Chris’ last measure and then starts his own solo. (This solo is much closer to the vocal melody than what the mandolin played.) A good rule of thumb, if you need a structure, and assuming there are 4 lines to the verse: play the melody on Lines 1 and 3, and improvise on Lines 2 and 4.

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