Dissecting the Melody of “America The Beautiful”

A companion-post to this is “Motive: Beyond Simple Identification“.

The song America The Beautiful by Katharine Lee Bates and Samuel Ward is the topic of a lovely NPR feature, Rob Kapilow’s What Makes It Great. It can be heard here. Designed for public radio audiences, it is very accessible to people with no musical training or knowledge of specialized jargon. What Kapilow did  was describe the song’s use of melodic motive in plain English. The song is so saturated with motive that I think it’s worth translating the description back to jargon to explain it with more depth.

Here’s the sheet music (click the image to enlarge and click here to download it as a PDF).

America The Beautiful

The music starts with two motives that we can label  and y.

America The Beautiful motives_0001

Notice how neither motive is constricted by bar lines; the pick-up note is part of what makes these motives clear. Also notice that important traits distinguish these motives: x has a distinctive rhythm (Kapilow calls it “short-long… a dot”) and a special downward-skip melodic contour.

Motive y has a plain rhythm of six steady notes, and its contour is different every time it appears. It’s often noted that rhythm is the most important parameter for making a motive identifiable; everyone points to Beethoven’s Fifth’s DA-DA-DA-DUMMMM as an example. But what is noteworthy (no pun intended) about the simple rhythm of  America’s six notes? It’s that they occupy a special place in the musical hypermeter — the  “location” of these notes in the phrase. In this case, all phrases are in a traditional folky pattern of four bars in length with the music coming to repose (the “cadence point”) on the downbeat of every fourth bar.

America The Beautiful summary_0005

Take a moment now to examine the music, labeling each occurrence of x and each occurrence of y. Unlike in most songs, when you are done you will have labeled every single note of the tune as being identical to x or y or a variant of it. Examine how the variants are related to their first occurrences, or to each other. Then consider this question: what else in this melody provides the elegance that has led this song to be a cherished America classic? After you’re done, return to this page and read the rest.

The Journey of Motive X

A typical starting point for analyzing motive is in labeling each occurrence. That’s easy in this song, especially when looking at the hypermeter; since there are four phrases, all parallel to each other (parallel in the musical phrase sense, as in bearing strong resemblances), the motives line up the same in every line. Two occurrences of motive x fill the first eight beats of every phrase, and one occurrence of motive y (it’s twice as long as x) occupy the last eight beats.

There’s not much variety in the way is used, but it is interesting to see how each pair of motives combine to form longer units. The first one uses a technique of interval expansion — it begins by dipping down a third, then returns to its original note before dipping down a fourth.

America The Beautiful motives 1-2_0001

In doing so, it provides two things: a melodic step-down pattern in its lowest notes (E down to D) and a harmonic change, with the first motive fitting the C Major harmony and the second motive conforming to the G Major harmony. This is very common in motivic usage: that a melodic pattern is adapted to suit a new chord.

For the second phrase (bars 5 and 6), the pattern is the same.

Skipping to the fourth phrase, a similar harmonic accommodation is made: the motive is transposed up to start on C. Now, with the skip down a third, bar 13 reflects the F Major harmony and bar 14 reflects C Major, providing a IV-I pattern. This, by the way, sounds especially refreshing since it is the only subdominant harmony in the entire song — everything else has been harmonized by the tonic, dominant, or secondary dominant (V7/V) chords.

Back in the third phrase (bars 9 and 10), something very different happens. The “short-long… a dot” rhythm persists, but the motive is shifted very high — to the highest note of the melody, actually — and the music steps down over the course of the entire two bars. This actually reflects a special aspect of the melodic “skeleton” that guides the music all the way to the end. If we examine the primary melodic “stepping-stones”, they make an arch down from the climactic E to the C that dominates the last phrase of the song and acts as our ending tonic pitch (little notes are “weak ones,” larger notes are “strong ones” with scale-degree numbers added).

America The Beautiful endingstructure_0001

With this “progression” of main pitches, it’s interesting to note that the ending tonic pitch (C) is arrived at in bar 12 and prolonged through the end. There are two reasons that the music doesn’t sound “closed” in bar 12: one is based on a higher level of hypermeter: it would be “unbalanced” to end after three phrases. Another is that its C Major harmony is quickly transformed into a C7 (V7/IV), leading to IV in bar 13, leading eventually to a strong authentic cadence.

The Journey of Motive Y

Whereas motive x tended to retain its melodic contour in each occurrence (except in bar 9, where it featured the dramatic leap up in the word A-MER-ica), motive y has no such strictness. It is very different each time we find it, though it clearly has an important “goal”: each time it occurs, it brings the melody to a point of rest that provides shape and tension in the tune.

In bars 3-4, the motive steps up to end on G. This G is beautifully harmonized with three chords (!): C on beat 1, C♯dim7 on beat 2, and G7 on beat 3. This provides a medium-strong degree of closure (it’s an imperfect authentic cadence with a series of  turnaround chords).

In bars 7-8, motive leaps right up to D and loops back around to it. D is the stepping-stone to the climactic E of the piece that starts phrase 3. This is a half cadence, intensified with the use of a secondary dominant (V7/V) chord and the special chromatic tone C♯, the only chromatic melody note in the whole song.

In bars 11-12, the motive works its way around a dominant harmony and resolves it to C. In What Makes It Great, Kapilow points out an amazing thing: the version of motive y found in the melody is perfectly harmonized by the original version of motive y (from bars 3-4)  in the bass voice. It is in counterpoint with itself!

The last use of y ends the song, in bars 15-16. It’s a jagged melody, full of leaps from note-to-note, but with a lower part and an upper part in stepwise relationships. This brings an especially strong conclusion to the song, with both RE-DO and SOL-DO motions implicit in the melody.

America The Beautiful end_0003

What’s The Point?

Hopefully, two “morals” come out of this study:

  1. Motives have “transformations,” but these transformations are most interesting when it is seen how they affect, and are affected by, the musical context.
  2. That the study of motive is really the study of formal structure, especially melodic formal structure. That motives are expanded or moved up or down or re-used is most important in how they dictate musical pacing and drama.

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