Updated: Aug 27, 2019
Modern classical music has become a respected genre in the last ten years or so thanks to the likes of Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds. The magic of this music is that composers are not bound by traditional rules of instrumentation or form. We can create whatever we think is beautiful whether it uses a string quartet, a drum machine, or just a piano. Despite not having any restrictions, I believe that by focusing more on crafting engaging melodies we can make our pieces more popular and grow our fan base.
We’re part of a movement that is making new art, and younger audiences are even listening. But are they really fans? Do they really engage in our music to the point of remembering our names? Why do people listen actively to pop music but often relegate classical music to the background? There are many reasons, but I believe one is that pop leverages the power of melody. Singable, memorable melodies help make pop music popular. I believe we can learn something from genres that capitalize on melody and its power to attract fans.
Melody (and perhaps rhythm) has been the most foundational aspect of music for thousands of years. Even today people don’t listen to pop music because of autotuning or gimmicks. They love the tunes themselves. People like melody because it engages the mind and heart. Similarly, in neoclassical music I believe that a stronger emphasis on melody could attract more dedicated fans.
I recently posted a Twitter survey about mood vs. melody and most people chose mood as the more important of the two. I think mood is essential to good music, but if all we are giving a listener is a great atmosphere and mood, I believe they are less likely to want to listen on repeat or go to a concert of that music. Mood alone doesn't stick in our brains like melody does. Look at all of the effort in film music to create memorable themes. Moods are vital in film, but it's usually the melodies we remember. And that melody is what keeps people listening to the soundtrack after the movie has ended. Of course many composers do employ melody and I'm not suggesting it's non-existent in our genre, but speaking for myself I think it could be stronger in my music.
The simple piano piece by Ólafur Arnalds called "Saman" is a good example of a modern classical piece that incorporates both mood and melody effectively. When I first encountered this piece I couldn't figure out why I liked such a simple song even from the first listen. I think the reason is that both of these elements are present. The mood is soft and intimate and the melody is engaging and prominent from the opening of the song. It also gets stuck in my head. It has hooks. Yes, I just advocated the use of hooks in classical music!
There are no rules for music composition, but there are choices we must make. I’ve decided to focus more on crafting melodies—melodies that I hope will speak to the heart and make listeners want to press repeat.