One of the characteristics of the piano that makes it so wildly different from many other instruments is the fact that it is able to play more than one note at once. And so, when approaching music for the piano, one of the most important things to do, even before beginning to read the piece, is to isolate the melody line.
Think about it like this: at any one time in certain music, like the Chopin waltz below, there might be four or five notes being played at once. And yet, out of these four or five notes, we only remember one – the note that is a part of the melody. If asked to sing, for example, the middle note of a left hand chord, most people would not be able to do it – it gets lost among the accompaniment “canvas”.
Isolating the melody line is not always as easy as it might be in a Chopin piece.
A short interlude: what is a polyphonic music?
Polyphonic music, unlike Chopin’s homophonic music (which has one clear melody and accompaniment) has two or more melodies going at the same time. This is particularly common in Bach’s music, which is why you don’t exactly find yourself humming a jolly ol’ baroque piece in the shower – because you don’t know which melody to sing.
Especially in heavily polyphonic textured pieces, such as Bach’s Baroque music, the key melody can be hard to pick out amongst the three, four, or even five “voices” that can be going on at the same time.
However, finding and drawing attention to the melody line is perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of piano playing and understanding composer intent.
As a piano player, essentially, you want to “hear” the piece for your audience. You don’t want your audience to get lost among the cacophony of notes, and you don’t want them to have to work too hard to find the melody. You want them to be able to focus on, and luxuriate in one specific line – it is through accenting and speed that you can present this melody line to your audience. This is the difference between hearing a piece and listening to it.
Before we get into it, here’s an example of a melody line, and the difference it can make.
The first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata is not easy.
Here in Australia, it’s included in our Grade 7 Piano for Leisure syllabus, equivalent to Grade 5 or 6 technical. In ABRSM level, I believe this is equivalent to approximately Grade 6 technical (I’m not sure. Either way you get the point. It’s definitely not a beginner piece).
And yet, you could argue that the notes are relatively easy to play. It’s not fast, and the left hand is playing slow octaves for the majority of the piece, and so many beginners fall into the trap of attempting this piece before they are truly ready.
The real difficulty of this movement lies not in its notes but in its voicing and articulation. Essentially, it has two accompaniments, the octaves in the left hand and the triplets in the right hand.
The melody (see it highlighted below), played mostly with the pinky and fourth finger of the right hand, should essentially feel like another hand altogether. It should float above the rest of the piece, easily distinguishable, like a flute in a flute/piano accompaniment, while the triplets should provide a pulse to the music, a beat.
When this melody is not clear, the piece degrades into a messy blend of notes that may be harmonious, but have no real connecting factor. It goes from a piece of music, “an expression of utmost sorrow” (Heinrich Neuhaus, the Art of Piano Playing), into a bundle of notes and sounds.
Isolating the melody line
The easiest, and cleanest way to identify the melody line is just to sing the piece. Listen to it a few times on YouTube, and then step away, do something else for ten minutes, and try and sing or hum the piece to yourself. Chances are, what you will be singing is the melody line, because the pianist has done a good job of “realising” it for you.
If you look at the score, the melody will often be the highest voice, simply because the ear processes higher tones more easily than bass ones. Note, though, that the melody may go into the left hand (it’s pretty common for the left and right hands to quite literally switch parts but stay the same otherwise). For example, this Beethoven Sonata:
If you look at the score and the melody is buried within a tonne of arpeggios, make sure you listen especially carefully during that section when listening to recordings, or get your teacher to point out the important notes.
Also watch our for a melody that repeats. If you know what it sounds like then that’ll make it easier to later identify, especially if it’s hidden. For example, look at this list, and at the whole bunch of chords at the end (second last bar line). There’s a melody line there – can you find it?
Well, the clue to finding this melody among what seems at first to be a whole bunch of very, very, similar chords, is to look at the fourth last bar:
A melody line is also sometimes conveniently indicated for you, when it has lines going in both directions. For example, instead of:
It might look like this:
Even though I don’t necessarily agree with this interpretation it’s still a good example of melody line notation.
In a similar vein, in highly expressive and fluid music, there’s often a slur linking the melody.
What to do once you’ve found the melody
Highlight it, and practice it by itself. Practice the articulation and figure out what the rubato should be like. Play it clearly and slightly louder than you would normally. Familiarise yourself with it and make sure you know it.
Then, play everything that isn’t highlighted, by itself. To know the melody, you must know the accompaniment, or the other voices in the piece. Try and play it softer than you played the melody.
A fugue is a piece with many melodic voices, usually three, but four or five is not that uncommon. While each voice is important at all times in the piece, the relationship between the voices change and there will be one voice that takes the stage, so to speak. There must be more emphasis on this voice which can be achieved by playing it with more volume, or playing the other voices softer. Again, without a specific focus point, the audience only hears sound, not music.
When tackling a fugue, I do the following:
(1) Highlight each voice in a different colour for the entire piece. Like below.
(2) Play each voice by itself.
(3) Play the piece through multiple times, each time accenting a different voice.
Then, when you’re comfortable with each voice and you know that you can confidently switch accented melodies at any time, go through the Fugue with your teacher, identify the subject (a short passage that pops up a lot, a “theme” for the fugue if you like), the answer (the subject in a different key) and any episodes (unrelated material – like an ad break).
Then, decide on which voice is most important for whichever section and on a new photocopy, highlight this focus melody throughout the piece.
Lastly, if you’re having trouble accenting certain fingers, during chords, say, then try this exercise, from Heinrich Neuhaus’ “The Art of Piano Playing”: