You know those things in life that you’re so familiar with, you never think to question their origin, composition or meaning? Example: what the hell does “scot-free” mean? We know it means getting away with something without consequence... but why does it mean that? What makes it mean that?
The arts are subject to the same sort of familiarity-fueled ignorance as many of our daily idioms and descriptors (I still don’t understand why anyone would let a bull in a china shop), and I recently received a thorough schooling in melody and R&B from an unlikely source—R&B veteran, Omarion.
Okay, it wasn’t actually Omarion who taught me about these things, it was Dr. Scott D. Paulin, a professor of Musicology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, but Omarion was the catalyst.
Allow me to explain.
In a recent interview with Noisey, Omarion was asked how he felt about the current state of R&B, to which he gave the following response:
"I'm going to be honest with you, there are some wack songs out but there's some great melodies. A great melody can save a song from not having powerful lyrics because it just rings in your head. So anytime there's melody, that's what Omarion considers rhythm and blues."
At first glance, this is a pretty standard answer. It’s the kind of vague diplomacy that artists of Omarion’s caliber usually stick to; it addresses their gripe in a general sense without calling out any artists by name, potentially risking future collaboration or tour partners.
But while the rest of us would be stuck on the fact that Omarion just referred to himself in the third person (amazing), our editor-in-chief Z, being the scrupulous man that he is, had a much more inquisitive takeaway.
“Anytime there’s melody, that’s what Omarion considers rhythm and blues.” That statement begs the question, “Is it even 'music' without melody?” Can R&B music exist without melody, which is, by definition, “a rhythmic succession of single tones organized as an aesthetic whole”?
After our own exhaustive research online, we turned to Dr. Paulin for his expert insight and the professor’s response shined a whole new light on a genre we once believed we were experts on.
“It depends what you mean by ‘melody’,” Dr. Paulin explained. “Melody doesn't necessarily just mean a tune, which implies singability and regularity of structure; any intentional (and possibly non-intentional) organization of pitches can, strictly speaking, be a melody.”
The professor provided multipleexamples of music that was not particularly melodic in the standard sense of the word, and referenced Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as “practically a zero-degree of melody,” noting, “ but no-one (I don't think) would argue that it's not music.”
So by the most basic definition of the word, everything that we collectively agree is music is comprised of melody, in a technical sense. But what about the more widely agreed upon usage of the term? Can you make hip-hop or R&B without singability and regularity of structure?
According to Dr. Paulin, “In hip-hop, the vocal might not be a 'sung melody' but it still has contour in addition to rhythm, and it's usually embedded in a sonic context that is unambiguously ‘musical.’” As for rhythm and blues, Dr. Paulin says, “it's harder to imagine non-melodic R&B since expressivity of vocal melody is, I think, nearly a defining characteristic of R&B as a genre,” but admits that, “...I'm sure there are instances that push this to the limit as well.”
While defining what is or isn’t “music” is still somewhat subjective—Dr. Paulin ended his explanation by stating, “Probably it's best to think broadly about ‘music’ as encompassing anything that both the creator and the listener agree to identify as ‘music’”—R&B specifically, in any known incarnation anyway, must contain melody.
Basically, by the standard definition of "melody" inherent in R&B, it would be impossible to craft a non-melodic R&B record, effectively meaning that, yes, all R&B music contains melody, aside from some experimental outsiders that may or may not even exist.
I never expected Omarion's personal definition of R&B to bring me closer to understanding melody, but here we are, and I’m glad it happened.
By Brent Bradley. Follow him on Twitter.