Unheard Melodies

Anybody who has heard a work by Leopold Mozart knows that he was a competent, respectable composer but that his son Wolfgang Amadeus was light-years ahead of him. What was the difference?

The quality of music depends on the ways it differs from what we anticipate. If it does not differ very much – as it doesn’t in the case of Leopold – it is not memorable. If it does, as it does with most of his son’s, it pleases and often moves us. If other composers’ music goes too far we reject it. We enjoy it because we recognize it, either because we have heard it before, or because we have heard something like it before, or because we think we have. Our positive response to music – classical, or pop, or rock or Chinese – is based on our recognition; we have anticipated it even if we have never heard it consciously before. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” wrote John Keats in the Ode on a Grecian Urn.

Researchers at Keele University in England have found that a year after they are born children recognize and prefer music they were exposed to in the womb, comfortably surrounded by amniotic. fluid. The auditory system of the fetus is functional about twenty weeks after conception. So what we think of as unheard melodies we may actually have heard prenatally in a pleasantly safe environment. No doubt we found it much more agreeable than all that incomprehensible talk.

So naturally we don’t know why a good deal of the music we like seems so familiar. Incidentally, we also know that infants, once they are born, whatever their background, show a preference for consonance over dissonance. Appreciating dissonance comes later in life, and people obviously differ in how much dissonance they can take. David J. Leviti, who runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception and Cognition at McGill University, has described these findings in his book, This is Your Brain on Music.

Most children begin to take an interest in music at ten or eleven, but some, of course, don’t and never will. Simple music comes first, complex music later. Most people have formed their tastes by the time they are eighteen. As adults we tend to be nostalgic for music we heard as teenagers, that is “our music,” and when in old age we suffer from memory loss we tend to remember that music more clearly than music we got to know later.

So – back to our question, why was Wolfgang Amadeus light-years ahead of Leopold? The answer is because he gave us, departing from what we anticipated, the most pleasing, emotionally satisfying, constantly surprising mix of simplicity and complexity imaginable. He presented to us melodies we recognize as familiar, whether or not we have consciously heard them before – not only melodies, but also what he does with them – the architecture, the narrative, the drama. What Leopold did was simple, predictable, uninteresting, insipid, flat, forgettable. Before we heard his music, there was nothing significant to anticipate,

Any melody, whether Mozartian, jazz or pop, is good and memorable if it seems to have existed before it was composed, if it seems like an “unheard melody” heard at last.

It may have seemed unheard because when we first heard it we were agreeably swimming in amniotic fluid.


3 responses to “Unheard Melodies

  1. Horace Krever

    It may well be the case that if we think that a composer’s music goes too far we reject it. But doesn’t that generalization apply only to a first hearing? Are there not many examples of a first rejection followed by a later fondness for a composition? Stravinsky is a good example but there are other cases of a new work “bombing” but later becoming beloved. Think of some operas.

  2. Elisabeth Ecker

    How about my grandson who wasn’t exposed to classical music in the womb, but at 3 month he would listen to Wagner and conduct the music. Well he waived his spoon in the air. At one year he ignores his toys and listens to opera for hours. He likes orchestral music and folk music too, but does not care for sopranos.

  3. I need further reading or research. At this moment I am a little skeptical. RK