Melody, Harmony, the Piano, and the Guitar
(Part One)
D. L. Stieg

The paradigm of music, and the point of origin for the musical traditions of the vast majority of historical and contemporary world cultures, is vocal melody. In many cultures a primary emphasis on singing and on melody is never supplanted as the basis of the musical tradition. This is not in itself a very limiting factor, given the enormous range of expression of the human voice, which is arguably the most versatile and the most sophisticated of all musical instruments. Other musical instruments invariably appear in the evolution of a culture’s musical tradition only after an initial primary emphasis on singing melodies. With the obvious exception of percussion instruments, other instruments are usually used, at least initially, solely for the purpose of doubling vocal melody, as was the case throughout most of the ancient world. In some cultures instrumental melody eventually becomes interchangeable with vocal melody, and rudimentary harmony is introduced in the form of drone notes, as was the case in the development of the Eastern musical tradition.

By way of contrast, the Western musical tradition, which like the Eastern tradition is shared by a great many of the world’s cultures, developed into a melody-harmony system, in which the conception of melody as the paradigm of music is expanded by combining melody with a progression of accompanying harmonies (combinations of simultaneously sounded notes). Vocal melody remains an important and highly visible component of the Western musical tradition, and is still the basis of most non-classical music. Vocal melody also figures prominently in Western classical music in diverse forms such as operas, oratorios, cantatas, art songs, and of course choral ensemble music. But in the Western tradition, the conception of melody as the primary force in music was gradually replaced by a more inclusive concept of melody that takes into account the harmonic scheme against which a melody is sounded. Much of the post-Medieval history and development of Western music is centered around this expanded concept of melody, and around the resultant interplay between melody and harmony.

The central importance of the interplay between melody and harmony in the development of Western music is well demonstrated in a consideration of the piano. The equal temperament tuning system that made the development of the piano possible also allowed for a more harmonious interaction among different classes of instruments (strings, winds, and horns), which made possible the development of the modern symphony orchestra. But despite the obvious appeal of orchestral music, a great many classical composers of note were attracted by the volume, range, sustaining power, and expressive power of the piano, and a number of them wrote almost exclusively for the piano. The most common forms of orchestral music were in fact adapted from piano compositions, and the size of the total catalog of piano works is far greater than that of any other instrument or instrumental ensemble, including the symphony orchestra. And while the piano is not normally included in an orchestra, the piano repertoire includes a great many piano concertos (works for solo piano and orchestra).

The prevalence of and preference for piano music is understandable enough, given that the piano is a polyphonic instrument that is capable of producing self-sufficient music in which the interplay between melody and harmony can be developed in myriad ways. The piano’s enormous capabilities were readily apparent to the 19th century masters, and can today be observed and appreciated by practically anyone, given the enormous present day catalog of recorded piano music in a dazzling variety of styles. The piano’s unique capabilities for creating self-sufficient and complete sounding music had much to do with the fact that it was the most popular and the most widely owned musical instrument throughout much of the 19th century and most of the 20th century. Another important factor in the popularity of the piano was the fact that the piano could produce sufficient volume to allow for its use in accompanying practically any combination of instruments and voices.

The indispensability of the piano for schools, music studios and conservatories, civic and religious venues, and even nightclubs, will likely never be challenged. But during the second half of the 20th century, the preference for individual ownership gradually shifted away from cumbersome and costly acoustic pianos and toward smaller and less expensive electronic keyboards. And by the end of the 20th century the piano and electronic keyboards were replaced as the most popular and the most widely owned musical instrument by the guitar. Like the piano, the guitar is a polyphonic instrument that is capable of producing self-sufficient music in which the interplay between melody and harmony can be developed in various ways. Despite this important similarity, the widespread popularization of the guitar resulted from the influence of a very different set of circumstances and societal forces than those that had established the piano as the instrument of choice about a century and a half earlier.

Coincident with the development of the guitar in Renaissance Europe, in a continuation of musical traditions that had already been established with other stringed instruments that preceded the guitar, a non-classical guitar tradition emerged. Championed mainly by troubadours, the non-classical (folk) tradition was based on using the guitar as an accompaniment instrument, usually to accompany singing but sometimes to accompany other instruments as well. In the folk guitar tradition, based until relatively recently on the oral teaching method (learning by imitating), the guitar has an almost entirely harmonic function, and is played by forming chords and either plucking the strings with the fingers or strumming them with a plectrum (pick).

The classical guitar tradition, which did not emerge in its modern form until the 19th century, is based on using the guitar as a solo instrument. In the classical tradition, which is based on formal learning and on musical notation, melody and harmony are of more or less equal importance, and the guitar is played almost exclusively by plucking the strings with the fingers. The flamenco guitar tradition, which was developed by gypsies in post-Renaissance Europe, is a curious and fascinating combination of the classical and non-classical traditions. In the flamenco tradition, there is an emphasis on melody as well as on harmony, and the guitar is played exclusively with the fingers, as in the classical tradition. But like the non-classical tradition, the development of the flamenco tradition was based on the oral teaching method, and extensive use is made of strums, various types of which are made with the fingers, in flamenco guitar music.

While the classical and flamenco guitar traditions have changed little since the late 19th century, there has been a tremendous amount of development in the non-classical guitar tradition. Much of this development can be traced to the invention and popularization of new types of guitars, first the steel string acoustic guitar, then the hollow body electric guitar, then the solid body electric guitar. Today the most visible and familiar context in which non-classical guitar music is played is in rock bands, in which solid body electric guitars are normally used, and in which the responsibility for developing the interplay between melody and harmony is usually shared by a lead guitarist (melody) and a rhythm guitarist (harmony). Nevertheless, the development of a number of other important styles of play on the guitar since the late 19th century was based not on such a division of responsibility, but rather on the combined treatment of melody and harmony by a single guitarist.