Friday, March 03, 2006

Fun with Hemiolas, Part 3

Piano Sonata in Bb, D. 960, Third movement: Scherzo
Franz Schubert
Bb Major, 3/4 time
Trio (in Bb minor)

I'm not happy with the way this post came out. Although it describes an engaging example, it doesn't follow through in a convincing way to a clear point. Please help me by posting your own thoughts on the D. 960 Trio in the "Comments" section.


If there were a "Guide to Creating Hemiolas," it would be very short:

1. Put prominent musical events where you want the downbeats of your hemiola meter to fall.

2. Don't put prominent musical events on the downbeats of the underlying meter, except where they're also downbeats of your hemiola meter.

The logic behind Rule #2 is obvious: if the notated meter is going to retreat to the perceptual background, then presumably it can't be privileged over the hemiola meter by things we actually hear.

The Trio of Schubert's Piano Sonata in Bb, D. 960, flagrantly violates Rule #2. Left-hand quarter notes, marked fzp, fall on underlying 3/4 downbeats which aren't also 2/4 hemiola downbeats. But it's possible to not hear these fzp's as ruining the hemiola. The left hand also includes staccato, non-fzp quarter notes, which fall on weak beats (in both 3/4 and the hemiola 2/4); these notes give the impression of having been delayed a beat, so that they're out of sync with the chords in the right hand. By analogy, the fzp notes also come to sound like delayed, weak-beat events in the hemiola meter.

If we take out the non-fzp quarter notes, then the fzp notes stop sounding like hemiola-meter syncopations and start sounding more like explicit 3/4 downbeats in the foreground:


Even in the real D. 960 Trio, it's possible for the fzp's to become explicit 3/4 foreground downbeats that break the hemiola. This happens when the Trio is played in a loping, swinging way. As explicit, foreground downbeats, the fzp's become heavy, like reference books dropped on the floor; they remain tolerable at all only because they're syncopations on the level of hypermeter (i.e., they fall on "weak downbeats").

I think the Trio sounds much better when it rushes along, hushed and subterranean, in a kind of angry stage whisper. This requires the right hand's rhythm to be played with snap and verve, bringing the hemiola meter to life: BMMM BMMM bup-bup-BMMM BMMM bup-bup-BMMM BMMM... The fzp's then become cross-accents against the right-hand rhythm, in an almost Jamaican way. (This is a bit of fictional characterization--I unfortunately know almost nothing about Jamaican music.) A fast tempo is crucial to making this happen.

But even if the fzp's sound like syncopations and don't push the 3/4 meter to the foreground, the fzp's and the underlying 3/4 meter might still have something to do with each other. We hear the fzp's; we experience the underlying 3/4 meter in some sense; the fzp's are simultaneous with 3/4 downbeats. Can we describe some experience that includes both?

Back in "Fun with Hemiolas, Part 1," I offered this phenomenology of hemiolas in general:

Instead of the usual two-level relationship between rhythm and meter:

- Rhythmic events are defined as
- Metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.)

a hemiola creates a three-level structure:

- Rhythmic events are defined as
- Hemiola metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.) are defined as
- Underlying metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.)

In the D. 960 Trio, the fzp quarter notes are accentuated in their capacity as rhythmic events. Their identity as syncopations comes from the top two levels of the three-level structure: they are accentuated rhythmic events defined as hemiola-meter weak beats.

Within this model, the experience that I have of the fzp's vis-a-vis 3/4 is actually simple to describe: in addition to serving as hemiola-meter weak beats, the fzp's "skip over a level" and get defined as underlying 3/4 downbeats. That is, the accentuated, intrusive fzp's pass their accentuation on to the downbeats of the 3/4 meter, a meter that nonetheless stays in the background of my awareness.

This last statement contains a big dose of self-contradiction: things that are accentuated generally don't remain "background" or "underlying." But this contradiction describes exactly how the fzp's sound to me. The best metaphor I can think of is some neurotic impulse which gives me a jolt but which my conscious mind rejects. Each fzp's status as a hemiola-meter syncopation (cemented by its analogy to the preceding left-hand quarter note) serves as a cover, a rationalization, for this jolt.

This metaphor takes the 3/4 meter from the innocuous pictorial "background" to the more menacing "neurotic unconscious." The creepy sound of the D. 960 Trio did a lot to inspire this rhetorical move. In any event, the metaphor illuminates one aspect of experience which could play a role in lots of musical analyses: Being accentuated or salient is not necessarily the same thing as being up-front and conscious.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

You want Beatles analyses? This guy's got Beatles analyses...

A musicologist named Alan W. Pollack created analyses of every song the Beatles ever wrote. It took him eleven years. Apparently these analyses are well known in online Beatles circles. You can find them all here, with commentary by Ger Tillekens.

Pollack combines a whole lot of technical detail with compelling descriptions of how he hears the songs. Here's a quick example from "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite":

You might say that different parts of this song are respectively in the keys of d, c, and e minor, but I think it's a cop out to describe the song as simply spanning three different keys and leave it like that...

...I believe the home key of this song is e minor, and that the opening in d minor, and the starting of the verses in c minor is a clever ruse perpetrated intentionally to throw you off balance. It's sort of the harmonic equivalent of one of those multi-planed Escher engravings where your sense of the direction pointed to by gravity's rainbow depends on where on the page you focus your gaze.

Now that's the kind of analysis that makes me want to go hear the song!

Thanks to Roger Bourland's Red Black Window for pointing out this resource.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Fun with Hemiolas, Part 2

"My Favorite Things"
The Sound of Music (1959)
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Music: Richard Rodgers
3/4 time

As I described in my last post, a hemiola creates a temporary duple meter that occupies the foreground of our hearing, while the triple meter continues in the background. Grove Music Online's definition--"the articulation of two units of triple metre as if they were notated as three units of duple metre"--doesn't describe what it's like to hear the hemiola, but it does describe the conditions under which a hemiola occurs.

Here's the beginning of the last section of "My Favorite Things":


All the words in the first two lines, except for the "the"s, come at two-beat intervals:

When the dog bites,
When the bee stings...

These two-beat intervals create a 2/4 (duple) hemiola meter, with the words falling on the hemiola's downbeats.

But where are the "two units of triple metre" that get articulated as three units of duple? The notated meter begins each two-bar group with a quarter-note rest. These rests don't begin the hemiola's "three units of duple metre." in fact, they don't begin any units of the hemiola's duple meter! I hear the hemiola meter as follows, with each three-bar unit under a bracket:


The previous section had ended on a dramatic C over a V9 (B) chord. The first melodic B on "When" resolves this C, encouraging me to hear "When" as a hyperdownbeat in the hemiola meter.

(It's also possible to hear three-bar units begin on "dog" and "bee", instead of on "When". But to me, this hearing is less compelling.)

The above image doesn't show how the notated 3/4 meter continues in the background. It's the relationship between that background meter and the hemiola meter that creates the special experience associated with hemiolas.
When the hemiola meter and the underlying meter line up normally, their disjunction occurs on a middle metric level:


Both the hemiola meter and the underlying meter agree that "week-" is metrically very strong, a downbeat. Both also agree that "the" is metrically weak, an offbeat. The points of dispute are "-end", "in", and "-try": they're strong beats in the hemiola, but weak beats in the underlying meter. They are the carriers of the hemiola's special feeling, because they are treated differently by the hemiola meter and the underlying meter.


In "My Favorite Things," the story is different:

- The "When"s are very strong hyperdownbeats in the hemiola 2/4, but weak beats in the underlying 3/4.

- "Dog" and "bee" are points of agreement between the hemiola 2/4 and the underlying 3/4, because in both meters they are on a middle metric level: downbeats, but not hyperdownbeats.

- "Bites" and "stings" have striking accent marks, but are actually the most typical in their relationship between the two meters: they're downbeats (medium strength) in the hemiola meter, but upbeats in the underlying meter.

There's an unusual sort of balance between "When" and "dog", and between "When" and "bee". In the hemiola meter, the "When"s are stronger; in the underlying meter, "dog" and "bee" are stronger. Overall, the words seem equally strong to me, as if the hemiola 2/4 and the underlying 3/4 have combined to give each word an average metric strength that evens out.

This seems to do justice to the way "When", "dog", and "bee" are stressed linguistically in the lyrics. For comparison, if the hemiola is normalized (putting the "When"s on the hyperdownbeat in both meters), then the "When"s are stressed too much:


And if the hemiola is removed (a remarkably easy operation), then "dog" and "bee" are stressed too much:


In the real version, the balance of stress is ideal:


But even if the "When"s and "dog"/"bee" sound equal in strength, their strengths are not the same. "Dog" and "bee" have a solidity and weight to them, because they are downbeats in both the hemiola meter and the underlying meter. (This weight goes well with "dog" and "bee" simply being held longer.) The "When"s are less solid; they have the hemiola magic, the floating quality, that comes from being upbeats in the underlying meter. But the "When"s are also exceptionally dynamic and active, because they are hyperdownbeats in the hemiola. This dynamic quality fits the sound of the syllable when, which begins with a wind-up--the wh phoneme opening out forcefully into the vowel.


What happens to the hemiola at "When I'm feeling sad"? "When I'm feeling" keeps it going, with exactly the same metric pattern as the previous two lines. But when we reach "sad", the hemiola is definitely over: "sad" falls on the hyperdownbeat of the 3/4 meter, breaking the pattern of quarter-note rests that had helped the hemiola maintain itself.

In fact, once we reach "sad", the entire line "When I'm feeling sad" loses its hemiola retrospectively! "When" becomes an unequivocal upbeat; "feel-" remains a downbeat, but becomes an ordinary downbeat instead of a hemiola-meter-and-underlying-meter downbeat.

This retrospective erasure of a hemiola is quite an astonishing trick. We don't interpret any particular moment, either in real time or retrospectively, as the moment at which the hemiola meter has ended. The hemiola meter seems suddenly to have melted away gradually!

From a linguistic point of view, the hemiola erasure works because "sad" receives the strongest stress in the sentence. We're not disturbed that "When" retrospectively becomes metrically weaker than "feel-", because both of those syllables are now metrically weak compared to "sad."

Here are the complete lyrics of the last section of "My Favorite Things":

When the dog bites,
When the bee stings,
When I'm feeling sad,
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad.


Among the first three lines, "When I'm feeling sad" not only has the clearest stress profile (it moves toward "sad"), but also carries the most compelling meaning. Dogs biting and bees stinging are strong, visceral images, but we don't really believe that they are constantly happening to Maria von Trapp. We can really believe that Maria often feels sad, and that she revives herself by thinking of her favorite things.

In the context of the whole song, "When I'm feeling sad" is a turning point: the song changes from an enumeration of visually oriented examples (mostly of favorite things, and then of bad events) to an outright description of personal emotions. (This is a common move in Broadway and Tin Pan Alley songs. In an earlier post, I described how "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" moved from being about a cozy physical environment to being about love.)

This change is paralleled by a change in the form of the song's statements. In the first three sections, Maria lists appealing images, sounds, and experiences, and adds, "These are a few of my favorite things." She is making a dispositional claim about herself, that she favors these things; she doesn't recount instances of actually experiencing them, or plans to experience them in the future. In the final section, Maria changes to actually describing a course of events: she feels sad, then she thinks of her favorite things, then she's better.

This more active, narrative mode is in turn reflected by changes in the rhythm of the vocal line. In the first three sections (48 measures total), every phrase begins on the hyperdownbeat, every phrase fills four measures, and every single syllable (except those that end phrases) lasts a quarter note! These features portray Maria's hypnotic state of recollection as she recalls her favorite things; they even begin to put us in such a state as we listen. (Yet Maria is still audibly awake, aware, and speaking to her audience rather than to herself.) In the last section, there appear upbeats, varying phrase lengths, and varying syllable lengths. These more normal features bring the song out of its recollective mode and put it into active narrative time.

This leads to one way in which the hemiola, and the remarkable transition out of it, pay off. The hemiola begins each phrase on the hyperdownbeat ("When"), just as the preceding dreamy sections did. When the hemiola melts away at "sad", the preceding "When I'm" is retrospectively revealed to have been metrically weak. Suddenly, we realize that in the prevailing meter (not just in the underlying meter behind a hemiola), we've been hearing a phrase that began on an upbeat. This aspect of the transition to active narrative time has been completed elegantly, by retrospective revelation rather than by a potentially clunky shift in real time.

I'm not going to get into the incredibly rich area of pitch, harmony, and linear motion in "My Favorite Things." If you have any thoughts about these areas, or about the metric matters I've discussed, please do leave them in a comment!

Coming soon, the final installment in the hemiola miniseries...

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Fun with Hemiolas, Part 1

Two analyses of interesting and special hemiolas are coming up soon. To prepare for them, here's a general discussion of what hemiolas sound like, along with a listening experiment to try.

Grove Music Online defines the modern (post-1600) hemiola as "the articulation of two units of triple metre as if they were notated as three units of duple metre." This statement delicately steps around the question of how we hear hemiolas. If two bars of 3/4 (e.g.) are "articulated as if" they were three bars of 2/4, then do we hear them temporarily switch to 2/4? Or does "articulation" mean only that there is a rhythm suggesting 2/4 (such as three half notes), and that we notice that it could have been in 2/4--but isn't?

Neither of these possibilities seems right. When I hear a hemiola, my 2/4 "sensors" are activated; I am experiencing duple meter, not just entertaining the possibility of it. But the duple meter doesn't replace the notated triple meter; my 3/4 sensors remain active as well. The result isn't just two meters (2/4 and 3/4) superimposed, going on both at once. It is a hierarchical relationship. Here are a couple of metaphors for this relationship:

- 2/4 is the "surface" meter, and 3/4 is the "underlying" meter. (Or 2/4 is the figure, and 3/4 is the ground.)

- 2/4 is a fictional meter, a "story within the story" told by the 3/4 meter. We experience it, but we know it's not real.

The most hemiola-heavy music I know is a Broadway tune. But it's not "America" from West Side Story! It's "A Weekend in the Country," from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Here are the opening bars of the A section:


The first three measures articulate 3/4, which is actually duple meter on the eighth-note level because it groups the eighth notes in twos. (On this level 6/8 is triple meter, grouping the eighth notes in threes.)

Here's the experiment to try:

First, sing or play the tune as if the first three bars were actually in 3/4, without any quality of 6/8 in them. It helps to tap the quarter note (duple) beat as you sing:


Without the presence on some level of 6/8 meter, "-end" and "-try" fall unequivocally on the beat. This sounds clumsy and punchy. If the song's hemiola were meant to sound like this, then the song would be pretty bad! In practice, we can't actually hear the song this way, because its accompaniment is in a straight 6/8. (Unless we hear the song as polymetric, with pure 3/4 in the melody vs. pure 6/8 in the accompaniment. This seems wrong to me, for exactly the reason shown above: the melody is bad in pure 3/4.)

What about hearing the first three bars as only suggesting 3/4, without actually being in 3/4 in any sense? Try singing the tune this way. The only syllables on the beat will be "week-" and "coun-". Add a little rubato to delay "-end" and "-try", which are now unequivocally off the beat:


This also seems wrong. It lopes along slowly, uncertainly, without any forward drive.

"A Weekend in the Country" sounds best when the first three measures include both 3/4 and 6/8, with 3/4 the hemiola meter and 6/8 the "underlying" meter. "-end", "in", and "-try" then get a special lift because they are both on the beat (in 3/4) and off the beat (in 6/8). Being on the beat makes them active and strong; being off the beat keeps them light on their feet.

More precisely: As rhythmic events, "-end", "in", and "-try" are on the beat of the 3/4 hemiola meter. But as metric events in the hemiola meter (second beats in 3/4), "-end", "in", and "-try" are off the beat of the underlying 6/8 meter.
Instead of the usual two-level relationship between rhythm and meter:

- Rhythmic events are defined as
- Metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.)

a hemiola creates a three-level structure:

- Rhythmic events are defined as
- Hemiola metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.) are defined as
- Underlying metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.)

Are rhythmic events in a hemiola also defined as underlying metric events, skipping over the hemiola-meter level? We'll find out in an upcoming analysis.

To close, a few notes on "America":

Unlike the hemiolas in "A Weekend in the Country," the hemiolas in "America" are supposed to be punchy and percussive. They occur in the melody and the accompaniment together. Should we hear them as genuinely changing the meter? I say no. If you try changing the whole song to 3/4, making the hemiola meter into the regular meter, the formerly-hemiola measures sound wooden and dull. In the real version, something else is operating to make the hemiola measures lively--that something being the underlying 6/8 meter.

The meter of "America" is notated as "6/8 (3/4)." This is a nice way of showing that 3/4 is present in some sense, but that 6/8 is privileged as the real, underlying meter. ("Real" and "underlying" are metaphors, of course.) If the song were instead in "3/4 (6/8)," it would sound rather different: the hemiola would apply not to "(A)-mer-ic-a," but to "I like to be in..." This would put the hemiola's extra energy in the wrong place.

Next time, we'll examine a hemiola that might not even agree with the underlying meter about where the downbeats are! Until then...

Friday, January 27, 2006

Mozart: Piano Concerto in Eb, K. 482, last movement

Piano Concerto in Eb, K. 482, Last movement: Allegro
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Eb Major, 6/8 time
First 8 bars


I did not plan for the first few Unconquered Sound analyses to have a common theme. Yet they do: music that has obvious charm, but that also has a less obvious psychological intensity that builds up after the first few measures.

The beginning of this theme has a remarkable floating quality. Various notes in mm. 1-2 (and, analogously, in mm. 3-4) are accentuated: the Eb on the downbeat of m. 1 as a starting place and a metric strong point; the Eb on the downbeat of m. 2, as the target of the preceding Eb's; and the final G in m. 2, which is the highest note so far and is notable simply for being different from Eb. No one of these accentuated notes seems to dominate the others, so that the whole theme seems to hover in a state of continuous, moderate accentuation. Even the last three repeated Eb's in m. 1 maintain this state, simply by being Eb's. If they weren't all Eb's, then individual notes would jut out:


mm. 3-4 repeat mm. 1-2 a step higher, on F and Ab. Because the analogy between mm. 1-2 and mm. 3-4 is so clear, it is easy to hear rising stepwise motions across the four measures, from Eb up to F and from G up to Ab. These rising motions don't seem especially dramatic or intense; they have the feeling of a natural, unforced expansion.

The next step in this natural expansion would be to reach G and Bb in mm. 5-6. This in fact does happen. Yet Bb comes early, on the downbeat of m. 6 instead of on the fourth beat. We can tell slightly ahead of time that this will happen, because the 32nd-note turn appears on the last beat of m. 5.

For me, the downbeat of m. 6 is the moment at which the whole theme really comes to life. Here are some relatively simple reasons why the Bb is energized:

- The pattern established in mm. 1-2 and mm. 3-4 has been broken by Bb coming early. This is a small surprise, creating a little burst of emotional energy.

- By reaching its highest note (Bb) earlier than expected, the theme suddenly pulls upward more strongly. (It doesn't seem to want to pull upward beyond Bb, though.)

- The Bb is the first note so far to be fully, unequivocally accentuated. It's on the downbeat of m. 6, and there isn't any note on the fourth beat to counterbalance it. Because it is also the highest note, it's quite a forceful stroke. (At the same time, it's quite delicate on the piano at a modest dynamic!) The theme still floats, but now a note stands out from the floating background.

Yet these reasons don't seem to me to tell the whole story. They show why the m. 6 Bb is energized, but not why the whole theme comes to life. When m. 6 arrives, I hear all of mm. 1-6 take on a stronger character, become more three-dimensional.

Here is a reason why this might be so:

The most obvious motion leading the whole theme up to Bb is the stepwise motion G-Ab-Bb. But by falling on the downbeat of m. 6, Bb becomes analogous to two other earlier events: the Eb on the downbeat of m. 2, and the F on the downbeat of m. 4. It's possible to hear Bb as the climax of the motion Eb-F-Bb, a more buoyant and expansive motion than Eb-F-G or G-Ab-Bb.

Eb-F-Bb might seem arbitrary, the result of "picking out notes" rather than a real musical experience. It doesn't have the advantage of being stepwise like Eb-F-G or G-Ab-Bb; stepwise motions are easy to appreciate because their pattern is so simple and direct.

But there is reason to connect F and Bb, beyond their falling on analogous downbeats. The m. 4 F is harmonized by V; the m. 6 Bb is harmonized by I. Both F and Bb are the fifth degrees of their harmonies. This is the first time in the theme that two notes have expressed the same degree of different harmonies. (I'm putting aside the little low-Bb upbeats to m. 1, 3 and 5.)

This relationship between F and Bb may not seem like much to go on. (And it doesn't have anything at all to do with Eb.) But the rest of the theme (mm. 6-8) reiterates the relationship clearly and boldly. We come back down from Bb to F to Eb, reversing the Eb-F-Bb motion. And Bb and F each have triads arpeggiated below them: Bb-G-Eb (I) in m. 6 is followed by F-D-Bb (V) in m. 7, hammering home the fact that Bb and F are each the fifth degree of their respective harmonies.

So we are left with two hearings of the theme. In one hearing, we move upward by step in mm. 1-6: Eb-F-G and G-Ab-Bb. In the other hearing, we realize that we have moved upward from Eb to F to Bb in mm. 1-6, and we come back down the same way (Bb-F-Eb) in mm. 6-8. These two hearings coexist in the same way that the two hearings of "Let it Snow!"'s first eight bars coexist (see 1/11/06): in analysis they get separated, but in normal listening they fuse.

It's the fusion of these two hearings that gives the theme the character that I described as stronger and more three-dimensional. The coexistence of two patterns itself has a character of richness, above and beyond the patterns' individual qualities. If you cook, you may have had similar experiences: putting multiple kinds of hot pepper in a dish, for instance, can create a deeper, more subtle spiciness than any one kind has by itself.

Here's a nice trick to help you hear Eb-F-Bb in mm. 1-6. These are the first bars of La Marseillaise, in Eb:


Listen to them first, and then to the K. 482 theme. This analogy will make your sense of Eb-F-Bb in K. 482 stronger than normal, but it works at all because Eb-F-Bb is already there.

In retrospect, it was only half true to pick out the downbeat of m. 6 as the moment when the whole theme takes on a stronger character. The Bb-F-Eb descent in mm. 6-8, with triads arpeggiated below Bb and F, had not yet occurred at the downbeat of m. 6--so it had not yet reinforced the parallel Eb-F-Bb ascent in mm. 1-6.

Once again, I hope you've enjoyed the analysis! My favorite recording of K. 482 is with Annie Fischer on piano and Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting, reissued on Seraphim (#5 68529 2, a 2-disc set that also includes K. 466, 467, and 488).

Monday, January 16, 2006

"Do-Re-Mi"
The Sound of Music (1959)
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Music: Richard Rodgers
C Major, 4/4 time
16 bars

Do, a deer, a female deer
Re, a drop of golden sun
Mi, my name, I call myself
Fa, a long long way to run
So, a needle pulling thread
La, a note to follow So
Ti, a drink with jam and bread
And that brings us back to Do!


What could be more cheerful or simple than "Do-Re-Mi"? More basic than a rising scale? You guessed it--I'm going to argue that this song is sophisticated and precise in what it expresses. The rising scale is indeed the basis of the song, but a lot goes on under its cover.

Let's look at the first line. What we find is going to apply, more or less, to the first four lines:

Do, a deer, a | fe - male deer
C D E C E C E
I (tonic harmony throughout)

Starting with the first "deer," the accented syllables in the line are sung on E, and the unaccented syllables are sung on C. The relationship between E and C seems something like the relationship between figure and ground in a picture: E is the figure, the primary target of attention; C is the ground, underlying and coloring our perceptions.

But at the beginning of the line, the strongly accented "Do" falls on C rather than E. (The theme of the song requires that "Do" fall on the tonic note, as that's the note that receives the syllable "Do" in solfege!) "Do" is attention-getting linguistically because it stands alone, not part of any larger word or phrase; it's attention-getting musically because it falls on the hyperdownbeat of the two bars of music. ("Hypermeter" is large-scale meter, in which each measure's downbeat is like a single beat.) Arguably, "Do" is more emphasized than any of the syllables that are on E.

So in this line, the pitch C makes a transition from being the focus of great attention to being in the background. On the first three syllables, we rise from C through D to E; then we stay on E, with C an added presence.

This illustrates the meaning of the lyric quite strongly. We make the transition from the solfege syllable "Do", sung on C, to the mnemonic definition for it, sung on E. Yet C remains present while we hear the definition, telling us that we are still hearing about "Do". This creates an analogy, which we can pick up subconsciously:

The difference between a term and its definition
is to
the fact that it's still all about the term

as

Melodic motion from C to E
is to
the continued presence of C

There's one more thing to hear in this line, that actually contradicts some of what's written above. We can hear the C-to-E motions on "a fe-" and "-male deer" as miniature, compressed repetitions of the opening C-D-E motion. Heard this way, the C's aren't in the background; they are taking us, momentarily, back to the start so that we can keep engaging in the line's main melodic motion of getting from C to E.

Now here's the fifth line, which is identical to the sixth and seventh lines except for rising transpositions:

So, a nee - dle pull - ing | thread
G C D E F G A
V of IV (applied dominant) --> IV

The A that sets "thread" is, like the mnemonic defintion's E in the first line, the third degree of the harmony at the time it is heard. We move from "So", on G, to "thread," on A. But this motion is much different than the motion from C up to E in the first line! There, C remained present throughout the line, the ground to E's figure. Here, G is swept away by the harmonic change from V-of-IV to IV when we reach A. This harmonic change (an applied dominant resolving) carries a lot of momentum.

It no longer seems certain that the term "So" is the line's most accentuated syllable. Within the mnemonic definition ("a needle pulling thread"), "thread" is massively accentuated: it's central harmonically and metrically, plus it's the target of a sweeping C-D-E-F-G-A scalar motion. This motion sounds like a miniature version of the whole song so far, raising the possibility that the final A in some sense jumps the gun and arrives too early, before "La" shows up.

All this changes the relationship of the solfege term and its definition. Now the definition drags along the term, in the way that a large, exuberant dog drags its owner along on a leash. And the definition urges toward its final word, the word that completes it. The song has become a game: the sheer joy of thinking of definitons for solfege syllables has taken over from the need to carefully express how the syllables relate to their definitions. Maria von Trapp, the protagonist who introduces the song, has dropped her pedagogical impulse and is reaffirming The Sound of Music's central premise: just by being bold and loving life, we can develop into the best people we can be.

This overstates the case. "Do-Re-Mi" is a joyful song from the beginning, and the pedagogical quality remains to some degree throughout. But there is a major change in the song's tone starting in the fifth line. In the sixth line,

La, a note to fol- low | So,
A D E F# G A B

"So" is sung on a B, rather than on its correct G. This doesn't disrupt the song's theme, as "So" isn't being defined in this line, but it shows how much joyful looseness has been injected.
("So"'s appearance here is also due to the impossibility of creating any mnemonic definition for "La," let alone one that rhymes appropriately!)

Like "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!", "Do-Re-Mi" undergoes an emotional transformation. In "Let it Snow!", the transformation (from physical coziness to love) was mostly the work of the lyrics; here, the music does more of the work.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!"

"Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" (1945)
Lyrics: Sammy Cahn
Music: Julie Styne
F Major, 2/2 time
32 bars + upbeat (my "m. 1" starts with the word "weather")

"Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" is typically heard as part of Christmas-music collections. This context tends to blanket the song with an aura of warm, fuzzy nostalgia. But it's actually quite powerfully romantic and psychologically sharp. I think it's a marvelously crafted song.

The song is in an AABA form: four eight-measure-long sections, of which only the third is different from the others (hence the "B"). Here are the lyrics:

Oh, the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we've no place to go
Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

It doesn't show signs of stopping
And I've brought some corn for popping
The lights are turned way down low
Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

When we finally kiss goodnight
How I'll hate going out in the storm!
But if you'll really hold me tight
All the way home I'll be warm.

The fire is slowly dying
And, my dear, we're still goodbying
But as long as you love me so
Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!


(NB: It's "brought some corn," not the often-misstated "bought some corn"!)

The theme of this song, and the significance of the hook ("Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!"), change over the course of the song. At first, the song seems to be about the pleasure of being in a cozy, warm, indoor place while it's snowing. But hints slowly build to suggest a more romantic theme. In the second "A" section, "The lights are turned way down low" is a delicate first hint. The "B" section takes things much further: now there's a kiss goodnight and holding tight. "All the way home I'll be warm" actually undercuts what had been the song's apparent theme--it seems that the singer doesn't have to be in the cozy, warm, indoor place to be happy. Finally, the last "A" section ends with the full statement of the song's revealed significance: "As long as you love me so/Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!"

Overall, the song is devoted to representing a constant, pleasurable situation, although the situation changes from being cozy indoors to being loved. The music supports this with a certain calm, mellow stability. Yet at the same time each "A" section builds up great momentum toward its last line, which after all does feature a lyric with three consecutive exclamations. How can a song be so mellow and so energetic at the same time?

An easy first observation about the mellowness of the "A" sections is that each line falls in pitch. Except for the neighbor motion between F and G in m. 3, there is no upward stepwise motion in any of these lines. (I'll pass on comparing the falling pitches to falling snow. I think the relaxed feeling of falling by step is more important.) Yet there's upward stepwise motion between these lines, building energy from C (m. 1) to D (m. 5) to E (the upbeat to m. 7). The high E packs every form of instability in the book: it's a non-chord tone, an appoggiatura to D; it's harmonized by a fully diminished 7th chord; it falls on an upbeat. From this E, the last line ("Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!") cascades all the way down to a restful F (the tonic) by step.

At the same time, there are less obvious ways in which the "A" section creates tensions that are relieved in the last line. In spoken English, the most accented syllable of the last word in a phrase often receives an especially strong stress. There are many exceptions, but the first three lines of each "A" section fit the pattern: try reading them with feeling, and you'll accentuate "fright-", "(de-)light-", and "go." From "fright-" in m. 2 to "(de-)light-" in m. 4, the music moves from F (I) to E (V). This creates a lingering tension that requires an F (I) in the melody to resolve it. But the third line (mm. 5-6) completely ignores the E, and takes a different path away from the first line (mm. 1-2): it raises the first line's melody and harmony by a step, ending on G (ii).

The beauty of this is that though E and G have arrived via totally different paths, they both have moved away from F by a single step, and both are simultaneously resolved when F appears on "snow!" in m. 8. (Of course, G's ii harmony doesn't go straight back to F's I; mm. 7-8 enact a cadential progression.)

In fact, the relationship of mm. 7-8 to mm. 1-2 and mm. 5-6 bears closer examination. As noted above, the high E falls on an upbeat. It's the first upbeat note that is higher than the downbeat note it precedes; it's the first upbeat note that really demands attention. If we put it aside for a moment and look *only* at mm. 7-8, we see...a repeat of mm. 1-2, with only small melodic differences! (There is a harmonic difference: m. 1 starts on the tonic, while m. 7 initiates the final V7-I cadence.) Even though we've climbed up to a high E to begin the last line, from a different point of view we've come back down to the C-Bb-A-G-F scale from the third line's D-C-Bb-A-G scale. That "different point of view" is the one created by the first three lines, in which important musical events start on the downbeat.

Of course, we don't ignore the high E upbeat when we're listening to the song. But I think we do register that, apart from that upbeat, mm. 7-8 are a return to mm. 1-2. This return gives the whole "A" section a mellow, well-rounded coziness that coexists with the tension-and-release pivoting on the high E. If you want to hear some of that coziness go away, try giving "Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!" these pitches:

C D | E D C Bb A G | F

(The |'s are barlines.) This puts the high E on the downbeat, and removes mm. 7-8's hidden quality of returning to mm. 1-2.

One last thought about linguistic stress: The one line in the whole song that doesn't put its strongest stress on its last accented syllable is, of course, the hook: "Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!" The music does put attention on the third "snow," but a spoken version wouldn't necessarily do so. This seems important, though I don't really know why. Look at these recomposed lyrics:

Oh, the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we've no place to go
We'll relax and we'll just let it snow!


Somehow it seems wrong that we have to wait for the last syllable for the "punch line"--even though so many musical tensions wait until that moment to resolve. I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts about why this might be so.

I'm sorry not to have much to say about the "B" section. I can offer one straightforward observation: the last line ("All the way home I'll be warm") is suddenly higher in pitch than the previous lines; the last line is also the line that breaks the cozy theme and fully paves the way for the love/romance theme.

I hope you've enjoyed this analysis...and I hope you enjoy the song! I'm particularly fond of a recording on iTunes by one Gary Grant.

Until next time...

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Welcome to The Unconquered Sound

Welcome to The Unconquered Sound! This is my forum for posting brief to moderately long analyses of music I enjoy.

I recently completed a music theory Ph.D. at a major northeastern university. There I had mentors who saw music analysis as a way of deepening one's relationship with works of music, and of kindling enthusiasm for them.

Kindling enthusiasm is my goal in this blog. If you find yourself wanting to listen to or play the music I analyze, then I've succeeded.

I intend to write for readers with a moderate amount of Western musical training. If you're a professional musician, an undergraduate music major, or anyone else with a similar education, then every analysis here should be comprehensible to you. Some analyses might be even simpler than that; others might bring in more advanced theory, which I'll explain as I go.

Why "The Unconquered Sound"? Partly because I feel that the sound of a work of music always transcends any particular analysis. Partly because I like the sound of the name.

Please feel free to post thoughts, ideas, disagreements, agreements, enthusiasms, or anything else.