Category Archives: Form & Melody

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.

Continue reading Dissecting the Melody of “America The Beautiful”

Motive: Beyond Simple Identification

My students frequently don’t “get” what I try to convey for analyzing motive in musical compositions. The challenge is that there are two things that are important for this topic:

  1. That motives can be located and that their transformations can be identified (look! it’s the motive from the beginning of the song! and it’s inverted!).
  2. That motives can be a structural element of music, that they can be used cleverly, and that their appearances can help to bring grace, drama, and “logic” to music.

The first item is fairly easy for me to teach and fairly easy for my students to learn. I introduce a series of terms (transposition, inversion, retrograde, elaboration, truncation/fragmentation, and so forth) and isolate musical motives in a passage of music. If the examples are clear enough, any student can identify a method of transformation.

But the second item on that list is harder; it demands thoughtful musical analysis, making the student look within phrases, across phrases, up and down the musical texture, compare melody to harmony, and more. It’s a real challenge. And I haven’t figured out a great way to make this “testable.” Mostly what I tend to do is give a song in lead-sheet format (Mancini & Mercer’s Moon River and Rodgers & Hart’s Bewitched are favorites) and ask students this question:

Continue reading Motive: Beyond Simple Identification