There are some standard responses to a new musical’s original score that pervade chat boards, social media, and even critical reviews by professionals. They’re the responses reserved for new scores found to be underwhelming, and they go something like this:
The songs were all completely forgettable. Not catchy. Afterwards I couldn’t remember a single tune.
These are not songs you’ll be humming as you leave the theatre.
Unmemorable melodies. I couldn’t have hummed you a single one the next day.
These aren’t Golden Age melodies. Golden Age melodies were classics, and are still around today, because they were good. These melodies will not be around in fifty years.
And so on. People are very comfortable saying this sort of thing in print and online. I think they must feel like they’re really saying something, really laying down some judgement on a show’s music.
But they’re not. The above statements are useless as critical evaluation, or audience feedback – and if you, dear reader, are given to using them, please stop. Because you’re talking only about yourself.
Permit me to demonstrate, beginning with a 14 year-old Mozart:
Me: Wolfgang, what did you think of the Miserere by Allegri?
14yo Mozart: Dunno. ‘Salright.
Me: Is it true you transcribed the entire piece, all thirteen or so minutes of it, for two separate choirs, after listening to it only once?
14yo Mozart: Yeah, it was a Wednesday. Dad’s always making me do stuff like that. You know, boost my followers. So I went back again and checked it the following Friday. Nailed it.
Me: Wolfgang, I’m a trained musician, and I think I could probably transcribe a few bars of the Miserere upon one listening, especially that bit where the top line soars way up high and comes back down again, but the whole thing? You must have found the piece very memorable.
14yo Mozart: Memorable? Huh. If that’s what you mean by ‘memorable’, every piece is memorable, when you’re as good as I am.
“The following day, I couldn’t remember a single tune” says absolutely nothing about the music. Maybe the music was rubbish, maybe it was magnificent, and maybe you weren’t listening, there’s no way to tell.
If you ask me to pay attention to a show’s Act One score, and hum you some of the tunes at interval, I could probably manage a good portion of three or four of them. But if you don’t give me a heads-up, I might not manage any. That also says nothing about the music.
And even if I remember every single melody, you know who could always kick my arse in that department? 14 year-old Mozart. 14 year-old Mozart could probably write out most of the orchestra parts after one listening, which also says nothing about the quality of the music. It tells us only what we already know about 14 year-old Mozart: he’s better at this than we are.
There is a useful sense of the word “memorable”, but I see it reserved chiefly for performances, or entire shows, as in “Patti gave a memorable performance”, or “It was a memorable night in the theatre”. People who say this don’t mean it literally, as if they could now recite Patti’s entire role for you, and they would look at you very oddly if you asked them to.
So, in the sense of “significant”, or “distinguished”, or (forgive the pun), “noteworthy”, “memorable” has value. But whether you can literally remember a piece after hearing it once or twice says nothing about the piece itself. It’s merely an observation on your aural skills. You’re talking about yourself.
“Catchy”, happily, is applied much more consistently than “memorable”: “having the quality of catching the mind” dates back to the 1830s. And “catchy” is also, amongst music theatre composers at least, a compliment.
Here’s a catchy and memorable Prokofiev tune, so catchy that it backed a TV and cinema perfume campaign in the ’90s:
But is it hummable? No, not really, and it needn’t be, since it’s not written for the human voice. Here’s how most us would fare attempting to hum this one, depending on vocal range:
Unless you’re already the sort of person who regularly hums a Prokofiev ballet around the house, I’m guessing you won’t accurately navigate those what-the-hell octave leaps mixed with semitones I’ve highlighted above, at least not without attentive effort.
All right, so Prokofiev can be catchy without being hummable, but instead, let’s have a melody written for the human voice. In fact, how about a song written for one of the biggest movie musicals in history? A musical whose soundtrack has sold over twenty million copies, and whose songs have been streamed online hundreds of millions of times. Something like The Sound of Music – those tunes are really hummable, right?
Except I’m not talking about The Sound of Music. I’m talking about Aashiqui (1990), which – trust me – is a hugely beloved, massive, hit movie musical. Here’s one of its most popular songs (music by Nadeem–Shravan, lyric by Sameer Anjaan):
Can you hum the vocal line? The main motif is repeated plenty of times, so you’ve certainly had every opportunity. Ah, but how are your Bollywood melisma chops? Here’s that main vocal motif:
I’m guessing, unless you’re pretty well-steeped in Bollywood melodies of the ’80s and ’90s, that you’ll have to practise those melismatic turns. Maybe you can hum a baroque-era aria, or perform gospel riffs for days, but is a tune like this part of your normal listening diet?
If it isn’t, and you can’t hum Main Duniya Bhula Doonga easily, and you argue that this tune is therefore not hummable, you’re just plain, empirically wrong. Millions of people, who are steeped in Bollywood melodies of the ’80s and ’90s, could hum it for you, right now, without notice.
“Hummable” really means “made up of bits I am already familiar with”. It is neither praise nor censure. It’s a function of how much music you listen to, and how similar it is. Songwriters who mix bits of familiar melody, but in interesting new ways, tend to be popular, and repetition really helps. Those who are too original, or not original enough, tend not to be so popular. But once you say you find a tune hummable, you’re not talking about the tune. You’re talking about yourself.
Which brings me to “good”, and wouldn’t it be nice if the best tunes were simply the longest-lived, with no other forces at play? It’s an appealing idea, and utterly at odds with reality. Pachelbel, by that reasoning, wrote one good piece of music. Yet here’s a less familiar work of his, and I think it’s better:
By the “Golden Age” logic, most women couldn’t write decent tunes until about 1800. Indigenous Australians somehow failed to create good beats until after white people showed up. The longer you think about this notion, the dumber it gets. It’s overwhelmingly Western European, male, English-speaking, record-centric, and it works only if you think in very short time spans. If you say a melody from a mere fifty years ago is an “enduring classic”, when that melody has been heavily supported, promoted and preserved by estates and corporations with money to spend and interests to protect, all you’re saying is “this tune has been prominent in my culture within my lifetime”. The tune might be great, or it might be awful. And you’re talking about yourself.
So, pretend we’re in a foyer together, and you’ve just heard my new score. Pretend you’ve had one too many wines, and you say this to me:
Peter, I just didn’t find any of your tunes hummable tonight. Right now, I can’t remember a single one. They’re not – you know – Golden Age melodies?
I was raised to be polite, so I will say:
I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you enjoy whatever I write next.
But I will be thinking:
You dear, sweet thing, I couldn’t give a flying fuck.
If you want to talk music, I’m all ears. If you want to say my tunes are derivative, or boring, or not suited to the human voice, hooray, let’s do this. But all you’ve said in this scenario is:
Peter, I don’t have a great aural memory. And while I profess to listen to a wide range of music, I don’t, really. Also, what I do listen to sounds pretty much the same.
So excuse me, but I’m off to the bar. I’ll come back when you’re done.