On Music: The World's Longest Melody?


Everyone loves a hum-able tune, a memorable melody. For a melody to worm its way into our memories, it usually needs to be short. It's like advertising in a way: If you wanted to promote a new film, you'd put up a billboard with an image and something like "This time it's personal." You wouldn't write in small print, "David is back in town looking to right the injustices of the world, like how the bad guys keep getting a leg-up on the good guys, who finish last. One bad guy in particular is stirring up all kinds of mishugas, the same guy, it turns out, who once tripped David in 7th grade gym class when they were running laps on the track field." (Different David, of course"¦)

Who could remember that bumbling copy? Well, the same is true in music. Here's how a typical Mozart melody goes. It's from his Symphony No 29. Listen to how the melody is built in short repeating sections that wind their way up the scale, building on top of one another before coming back down and starting from the beginning. Simple repetition, easy to remember and whistle as you drive to work in the morning.

But this post isn't about Mozart, it's about Maurice Ravel, one of the greatest 20th century composers; the guy who, along with Claude Debussy, we think of when we speak of French Impressionism. (The music, not the painting.)

His most famous piece is one of the last pieces he ever wrote, a ballet commissioned from the dancer Ida Rubinstein in1928 called Bolero. The excerpt here comes from the one-movement orchestral piece he later extracted from the ballet. What's amazing about this piece, besides the colorful orchestrations, is that the entire thing is built out of one superduper-long melody and an equally long countermelody. To go back to the advertising analogy, it's the latter version, not the former - YET completely hum-able. Proving, perhaps, that an adroit composer can construct beautiful melodies that don't repeat for a whopping 1 1/2 minutes! The longest unbroken melody ever written? Probably not. But certainly the most memorable.

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