Blues Riffs for Guitar (The Riff Series) by Mark Michaels

By Mark Michaels

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Melody is not just a string of notes: anything but. Classical music finds its special character in a sustained encounter with this dimension of melody. Most of the music is solidly based on melody, even in the modern period, but to keep the promise that melody makes it must also let melody go. It must learn the fate of melody in order to know itself. The journey that classical melody takes can be perilous, long, and sometimes confusing, but it can bring extraordinary rewards. As classical music construes its world, and ours, when melody comes back it should come back changed.

Music that has a “real” existence because it is partly composed in being performed affects us differently. Its most salient details are not interpretations but creative interventions meant to sustain or diversify a compelling musical effect. These are the details that complete the music through its performance. Classical music cannot be completed in the same way; it cannot really be completed at all. This incompletion is a creative medium, and the details that animate classical music thrive on it.

But it is not satisfied, and it will not pretend to be. Classical music, popular music, and jazz might all be said to meet on the ground of melody. They borrow from each other shamelessly, all knowing a good thing when they hear it. But they don’t treat their melodies in the same way, and the distinct value of each depends on the treatment. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just settle on a contrast—but not a contest—between classical and popular types, recognizing quite well that each term loosely lumps together a multitude of styles.

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