Rameau argues that melody is derived from harmony

JP Rameau

Extract from the Traité de l’harmonie [1722]

In this extract Rameau argues that melody is derived from harmony.

Chapter 19


At first sight it would seem that harmony arises from melody, inasmuch as the melodies which the single voices produce become harmony when they are combined; it has, however, been necessary to determine in advance a path for each of these voices in order that they may agree together. No matter, then, what order of melody we may observe in the individual parts, taken together they will scarcely form a tolerable harmony (not to say that it is impossible that they should do so) unless this order has been dictated to them by the rules of harmony. Nevertheless, to make the whole theory of harmony more intelligible, we begin by teaching the method of constructing a melody, and supposing that we have made some progress with this, whatever ideas we may have formed concerning ti are set aside the moment it is a question of joining it to another part; we are no longer masters of the melody, and while we are occupied in seeking out the path which one part should follow in relation to another, we often lost sight of the one we proposed to ourselves, or are at least obliged to change it, lest the restraint this first part imposes on us prevent our always giving to the others a melody as perfect as we might wish. It is harmony then that guides us, not melody. A learned musician may indeed propose to himself a beautiful melody suitable for harmonization. But whence has he this happy faculty? Cannot nature have provided it? Assuredly. And if, on the other hand, nature has refused him this gift, how may he succeed? Only by means of the rules. But whence are we to derive these? That is what we must determine.

Strunk, Oliver, Source Readings in Music History, The Baroque Era. WW Norton & Company, New York and London, 1965. SBN 393-09682-3, p. 210.

5 thoughts on “Rameau argues that melody is derived from harmony

  1. Jalleluplipse

    Excellent site theoryofmusic.wordpress.com and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here: this .. as it’s taken me literally 2 hours and 39 minutes of searching the web to find you (just kidding!) so I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor :)

  2. Margaret Dylan Jones

    Methinks “Jalleluplipse” is a fake post, they didn’t really read anything and have no interest in music theory.
    On the other hand, I read this with interest. I agree with Rameau that harmony comes first, but only for ‘tonal’ music. I tell my students if you haven’t got a good chord progression, no amount of tinkering with the melody will fix it. But if you have a good progression, you can write heaps of good tunes to it.

  3. yuvilen

    The quotation is very interesant especially its several last sentences (beginning from “A learned musician may…” The sense of this passage that Rameau claims that his theory is necessary for composition by people without gift. In reality it obviously unsufficient. The great Jean-Jasques Rousseau wrote about such practice:
    ” The study of composition, which used to require about twenty years, now can be completed in a couple of months; musicians are devouring the theories of Rameau, and the number of students has multiplied. … France has been inundated by bad music and bad musicians; everybody thinks he has understood the finesses of art before having learned as much as the rudiments; and everybody tries to invent new harmonies before having trained his ear to distinguish between right and wrong ones.”
    Here the opinion of H.Schenker in his work ” Rameau and Beethhoven” correlates very exactly:
    “That is the extent of the conflict which existed between the masterwork and theory. In the former horizontal considerations predominated, while in the latter the vertical elementwas uppermost. Likewise in accordance with the will of Nature―as if art was destined to be led to an impasse―came the paralytic standstill of human mediocrity, as a curse of its perenially-inherent inclination to mechanize its very being. Instead of creating substanceout of the live source of an idea, the average person absorbs ideas handed down to him only mechanistically.”

    Yuri Vilenkin

  4. Pingback: The Dominance of Harmony over Melody – Musings on Music and More

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s