How to Make Music

How to Make Music

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

What makes music? Rhythm and Melody. Could there be music without rhythm? Could there be music without melody? Are they equally important or is one more important than the other for music?

Imagine a rhythm piece with no melody. Of course, rhythm can stand alone. A standard example of this is marching. Military personnel march, and do so rhythmically. There is no need for music to make for a good marching group. The sound of feet rhythmically pounding the surface simultaneously needs no musical accompaniment to constitute a march, providing the unity characteristic of a march. The Ziegfield Follies can illustrate rhythm at work without music when forty nine out of the fifty girls on stage all lift their right legs together, in contrast to one girl instructed to lift her left leg at the same time. Disharmony is immediately evident to the theater audience, but not for lack of melody. Rhythm has its own rationale but is it music?

Though rhythm can take place without any musical instrument, often the drum accompanies and indeed galvanizes rhythm. The drum intensifies the dynamic associated with rhythm, and seems to add an element of “feel” to bodily motion like marching. In recent and contemporary music, the drum has assumed an ever more prominent role, to the point that sometimes a piece of current “music” features a drum solo as its significant piece. The drum beat is especially conducive to many forms of modern dancing. While the audio component of drum rhythm is evident, there is also a tangible, “feelable” dimension constitutive of it. We note this in some recent high-powered automobiles speeding along our neighborhood streets, windows closed, yet emitting a strong vibrating sound as it passes by. The appeal of much contemporary music depends on its rhythm, and its tangible, bodily component.

But is it music? Is it possible to sing a drum solo in the shower? Can we call anything music if it can’t be vocalized? To speak of dancing exclusively in terms of rhythm seems highly problematic, despite the compatibility of the two.

Most of us likely look for melody when we think of music, perhaps even more than when we think of rhythm. When we use the word “song”, as in recalling our favorite song, we usually have in mind some notion of melody, more than we do of rhythm. When we sing in the shower, it is the melody that we vocalize, though undoubtedly rhythmic in tone and quality. The rhythm has to be there, but the focus for most of us is the melody.

There is a difference between them, and possibly an inequality bound up with that difference. For rhythm can survive and even thrive without melody, but melody cannot survive at all without rhythm. To think of melody without rhythm is to imagine a series of sounds, even if accompanied by words, but lacking the shape or format that seems necessary for singing it as a melody.   Would it not rather be cacophony, “without rhyme or reason”, as they say? Melody indeed adds color and flavor to music, but, like color, for instance, it needs a framework in which to present itself. Otherwise, it is like a spilled paint-can spreading out over the floor, without rhyme or reason. Melody without rhythm is like spice indiscriminately sprinkled over a food dish with no measure indicating too much or too little. It will not be tasty. It is impossible to dance to a melody with no rhythm.

What does all this mean? To lead one’s life solely in terms of a rhythm is to do so in terms of a drumbeat which controls one’s movements and actions. For some religious believers, this means honoring the beat delivered exclusively in terms of the commandments. There’s certainly rhythm there, but it tends to be of a mathematical kind, as we measure according to the beat resounding in the first, second, third, etc., commandments. This is orderly, and provides a sense of movement in one’s life. But there may be a lack of color, or taste, or beauty, or melody in one’s life. On the other hand, to live one’s life solely in terms of melody, without any rhythm to it at all, is to attempt a shapeless routine involving a combination of sounds, but this may resemble a baby pounding the keys of a piano. Ideally, pursuing a life of love nicely promises a combination of rhythm and melody.   Then one’s life becomes music.



One thought on “How to Make Music

  1. When I was on a retreat at HNPRC many years ago, a young deacon happily informed me how his mama always told him that “singing was like praying twice”. But the point I want to make is that buy actually expressing “music” prayerfully, he was sharing his love for all. On another “note” though, you make an excellent point of inquiring as to whether one is “making music” as to how we lead our lives. With so much pressure in our daily lives we need to stay focused on “making music” and loving others as you pointed out, otherwise we just become anothet noisy gong! Thanks again Fr. Sebby for contributing to the CPP Blog.

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