Songwriting: Birdsong and Melody

Some thoughts I had on melody and songwriting taken from correspondence with a friend,

Some more thoughts occurred to me this morning while I was listening to a mourning dove outside the kitchen window. As I listened to the bird’s song I started trying to mimic his call. The more I imitated him the more I noticed the subtleties of his song. It was intriguing to discover the depth of his variations upon one or two themes(or perhaps there were two birds).
Later, I was discussing with my father how I’ve been beginning to find inspiration for melodies within the natural world. I demonstrated what I meant, first whistling my approximation of the bird call and then riffing a melodic structure from musical intervals within the call. The result was a satisfactory fiddle tune which borrowed from the bird song and melodic devices I’ve heard in other tunes.
I don’t listen to as much music as I used to; when I’m working I prefer quiet and solitude since it allows me the space to think about music and words. It occurred to me that a hundred years ago it was still fairly easy to find peace and quiet for there was far less droning and racket in the world. There was space to hear natural patterns and no doubt these patterns readily imprinted themselves upon the mind of the songsmith; a veritable treasure trove of melodic intervals and rippling rhythms. The old songs are mined from this stock. They resonate with the inherent melodies of the world around them. When the fiddler gave his melodic nod to the mourning dove’s song his audience would recognize the reference, just as we recognize when a guitarist pays homage to an older hero with a riff or lick. The old songs spring naturally from the soil they were formed in.
In our generation, and for a number of generations before us, we have become so inundated with recorded music that it has become our only melodic reference. The best music nowadays comes from those who recognize that there is something fresh and alive about the old songs, even if they don’t know what it is. The worst music stalely rehashes old trick and trinkets clumsily ripped off of better men.
Of course, at it’s most basic level music will always be shaped by the world it emerges from. Ours is a mechanical industrial world. Flawless and unvarying repetition forms our soul. Gone is the subtle variations of the mourning dove’s theme. In its stead is the chicca-chicca-clank of the steam engine or the machinegun-blast of a guitar and drums. There is very little space for the old songs to grow.


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