Duke Ellington, The Nutcracker Suite (1960)

The Nutcracker Suite, as performed by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, works on me like a time machine. I’d call it "nostalgia," but I was only four years old in 1960 when it was first recorded. I had no knowledge of the world outside my home and family. I certainly had no awareness of Duke Ellington.

I did not begin listening to Ellington until much later in life, and I should probably be waxing nostalgic about the 1980s when I first fell in love with Ellington's music rather than 1960 when Eisenhower was president. However, that is not how Ellington's music affects me. It doesn't take me back to a time in my own life when I was discovering the music's soulful elegance, it takes me to the time of its recording, a time when big band music was an integral part of American culture.

My faux nostalgia comes from a longing for an era when Ellington's music could be heard with ears more acclimated to big band music. I yearn to hear Ellington's music as an unalloyed product of its time, to hear it without the iconic adulation that came from a later age. I am envious of those who heard Ellington's music when it was first performed, before it was reshaped by familiarity. How groundbreaking and imaginative it must have sounded when it was new and fresh.

In 1965, a music jury voted to make Ellington the first African American and jazz performer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The Pulitzer committee, to its everlasting shame, refused to accept the recommendation and decided not to give an award for music that year rather than recognize Ellington. Not until 1996 was an African-American (George Walker) awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music. In 1997, Wynton Marsalis became the first person to win a Pulitzer for composing jazz.

“Critics have their purposes, and they're supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get a little carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what they did. – Duke Ellington


The Nutcracker Suite, arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn,
performed by
ARC Studio Jazz Ensemble & The Sacramento Jazz Orchestra


The Nutcracker Suite, performed by Steven Richman conducting the Harmonie Ensemble,
followed by a performance by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

A Beginner's Guide to Melody

Defining "melody" is one of the least difficult tasks for a teacher explaining the elements of music to students who are new to classical music.

When listening to a piece of music we hear notes that are arranged both vertically and horizontally. By “vertical,” I am referring to the different notes that are played simultaneously. By “horizontal,” I am referring to the notes that are played one after another.

Melody is a successive arrangement of notes. We can therefore think of a melody as a musical "sentence." Just as we hear one word after another in a sentence, we hear one note after another in a melody. All told, melody, for most people, is the most recognizable element of music, the one element that most people hear first.

Here's one of the world’s most timeless melodies:

Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusic, Fourth Movement


Some melodies are singable, conforming to the natural abilities of the human voice. If the singable melody is also memorable, the type that gets stuck in your head, we can generically call it a “tune.”
Here's a great tune from Beethoven.


Some melodies are not singable, as represented by this melody from "Mood Indigo."

Duke Ellington, "Mood Indigo," performed by the Clark Terry Quartet


Sometimes music provides a short series of notes rather than a complete melody. When a series of notes is too short to form a complete musical sentence, it's called a
motif. Sometimes a series of motifs can be used to complete a musical sentence and form a melody. Sometimes the motifs stand alone.
Here's one of the most well-known motifs in music history, a motif that stands alone as the primary theme of the music.

Beethoven,
Symphony No. 5, First Movement, performed by the Canadian Brass


A piece of music generally presents a melody in one of three different ways.

1. Monophony: Music that provides a single melody with nothing else happening. The melody has no accompaniment.

Sanctus Lambertus, plainchant


2. Polyphony: Music that provides two or more melodies at the same time. Polyphony can get complicated, and the two ears that nature gave us might not be enough to hearing everything that’s going on.

Bach, “Little” Fugue in G Minor


3. Homophony: Music that provides a single melody with an accompaniment. Almost all pop music is homophonic and most people's ears are well-acquainted with homophony. Think of a singer strumming a guitar. The singer is most likely providing the melody and the guitar the accompaniment. That’s homophony.

The Beatles, Blackbird


There it is. Listening to classical music requires much more than identifying a melody and how it is being used. Nevertheless, I can think of no better place to begin a journey through music history than being able to recognize the melody in a piece of music.