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October 31, 2009


By: Bernard Chazelle

"Layla" features rock's most famous guitar riff (missing here) as well as its greatest modulation.

Enough has been written about this song, always polling as one of rock's top anthems, I'll deal only with the technical part, which is itself somewhat interesting.

The intro and chorus follow the progression of "All Along the Watchtower" (i-VII-VI-VII-i, ie here, Dm-C-Bb-C-Dm): one of the most common chord sequences in rock (0:27-1:10). The song is in Dm, but the verse begins on a C#m (1:10) ie, its antipode on the cycle of fifths. By rock standards that's as wild as it gets. In country music, you'll often hear a singer move up or down by a half-step for no particular reason, as though a boring tune becomes interesting just by virtue of raising its key. But Clapton knows what he's doing. When he leaves the comfort of Dm for C#m he actually modulates to its relative major E. Just wait: you'll see there's method to the madness. Now when he hits the root E (1:17), you should soon be hearing a nice interrogative D (the Mixolydian quest for a change): you need it as a leading tone for the coming F#m (1:18). But Knopfler seems asleep and drops the ball, so the transition is not as compelling as it should be.

The idea then is to go through a perfect cadence twice (ii-V-I-IV, ie, F#m-B-E-A) -- the kind of downwind sailing I was talking about earlier. The final A is then used as the dominant of the original key of Dm. It's all tonally "correct." If you've ever heard of the harmonic minor scale but always wondered what it was about: this is your perfect illustration. In theory, from A the reentry should be to D major, not minor. Of course, home is Dm so Clapton has no choice. The problem is that A has a C#, which is not in the scale of F (the notes of the keys of Dm are given by the scale of F), so hundreds of years ago people invented a new scale called Harmonic (common in Middle-Eastern music), which gives us a leading tone to the tonic, ie, C# -> D. Voila!

Mark Knopfler's solo is tasteful. You can say it's just noodling over the Dm pentatonic with passing notes from the Aeolian mode, but there's a melodic quality to it that a quintessential bluesman like Clapton does not like to bring to his playing. The tone he gets with his fingerpicking is gorgeous. Some of his swelling bends have a wind instrument quality.

There are tons of cool Knopflerisms in the obbligatos: I love the G#-A-G#-F#-Eb-E-C# lick over the G#7 at (1:12-1:14). It's very quick so you have to pay close attention. I forget which one but this is straight from one of Beethoven's piano sonatas.

PS: Why I care about such analyses: because it's a myth to think those guys woke up one day, grabbed a guitar, and composed these tunes. They have in them, as we all do, hundreds of years of cumulative musical sensitivity that was "invented" (not discovered) by people who worked out the theory. That's what makes western music different from all others. Since the 9th century, it's been built as a written theoretical construction. The interplay between theory and practice is tighter than in any other art form. So to think of theory as what scholars did after the fact to understand music is naive. In the West, the theory always came first. Don't forget that.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at October 31, 2009 02:14 PM

In the West, the theory always came first.
That's annoying. I'm not saying that it isn't true; I don't have the background to argue one way or the other. It seems to devalue the soul, as it were.

Happy fucking Halloween.

Posted by: Murfyn at October 31, 2009 08:18 PM

Sorry, Bernard, lost me on this one. Feels more like a dirge compared to the sublime original with Duane's soaring, joyous slide. Un peu fade.

Posted by: Oarwell at October 31, 2009 08:20 PM

Why is it annoying? I am not implying computers could compose. Far from it. I think theory is the basis of the best creations.

Oarwell: two reasons:

1. The plugged version is too well known.

2. I can't stand the piano coda.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at October 31, 2009 09:22 PM

*yawn* get back to bach already...

Posted by: jerry at October 31, 2009 11:21 PM

Hi Bernard,
I don't know the first thing about theory and can't even play chopsticks, but like you I find the piano ending annoying.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at November 1, 2009 03:52 AM

I don't agree at all. I find the coda quite soothing in its simplicity. There are actually 4 guitars playing harmonies and counter riffs on the original version. (That's 2 too many, in my opinion.) The coda, in its simplicity, is a nice resolution from all that clutter for what supposed to be a basically sweet and sentimental song.

And I'm sweet and sentimental, goddamit!!

Posted by: Paul Avery at November 1, 2009 07:46 AM

Professor Chazelle: On an unrelated note, I immediately thought of you when I ran across this.

Musicians Seek Secret U.S. Documents on Music-Related Human Rights Abuses at Guantanamo

October 22, 2009

Posted by: N E at November 1, 2009 10:26 AM

Always thought the piano coda was like a post-coital cigarette, soothing, but ultimately bad for your health.

NE: Music as torture, America's contribution to world culture. I think pioneered when Noriega was holed up in the Papal Nuncio's house and the US "liberators" played deafening rock night and day. Probably more efficacious if they had played C&W. Later the amplified sounds of rabbits being slaughtered graced the nights at Waco, before the final immolation. First rabbits, then children: Caliban's progression.

Now I go to Mass to be tortured by 'On Eagles' Wings' or some other cloying monstrosity. Talk about insipid! Sadly, the Church seems to have forgotten Bach, not to mention Gregorian chant. They pray for the troops, then they pray for the sanctity of life. Oy veh.

Would be interested, Prof. Chazelle, in your thoughts on György Ligeti (assuming you have some, and I suspect you do).

Posted by: Oarwell at November 1, 2009 12:04 PM

I like his film music :-), but in general the Darmstadt crowd he spent time with leaves me cold. Actually I have little regard for the avant-garde in general (Babbitt claiming that the point is to compose, not to listen! Maybe Gitmo should get a dose of it.) All those white guys who think that all it takes to compose great music is to be very clever. There's a huge cold war component to this fascination you see among the elites here in the US (but also in Europe). But their inspiration is dry. Has anyone ever had tears running down their cheeks listening to that kind of music? Maybe it's a simplistic criterion but for me it's the only one that counts. I hate cerebral music. For me Bach is 100% physical. If I want math, I do math. And I want innovation, I'll take Grandmaster Flash over Boulez any day!

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at November 1, 2009 01:15 PM

The "annoying" is my issues coming up for me; a solid theory is a fine thing for a creative mind to work within. The idea that "freedom" equals "freedom from boundaries" is quite ridiculous. Frank Zappa was into theory, and I love what he did with it.

Posted by: Murfyn at November 1, 2009 02:30 PM

"I am not implying computers could compose."

Don't see why not...

Posted by: godoggo at November 1, 2009 08:22 PM

Will another computer program enjoy the music that a computer program has composed?
Or will it say, "I prefer the earlier stuff, before he sold out . . ."
Re: "Happy fucking Halloween"
I meant of course "Happy Halloween!"

Posted by: Murfyn at November 1, 2009 10:27 PM

"Honey, you're bee-yoodi-ful," the drunk said to the pianist.

Pianist: "Thank you sir, you're very kind."

Drunk:"Do you know there's a shortage of available men?"

Pianist: "No. Maybe if you hum a few bars."

Posted by: grimmy at November 2, 2009 04:12 AM

Very nice. I appreciate the actual chords and and careful explainations.

I presume you mean that we've internalized these lessons from centuries of western music. I frankly find it inconceivable that music gets 'thought through' prior to playing, but that might just explain why I am not very good.


Posted by: Dilapidus at November 2, 2009 01:46 PM

Interesting to hear the two of them together -- they're on such different pages it doesn't seem to work, but I love Knopfler's tone, so it's a joy to hear in this context.

You hate the piano coda on the original? How can that be? The song itself is the best expression ever of tortured, heartbroken, frantic longing, and the music is perfect -- a little over the top, just on the verge of complete chaos and breakdown. Dark night of the soul captured in music. And then, finally, the dawn does come and the sun does rise, and maybe everything will be alright again. The sweet simplicity of the coda is what makes the prior agony just right.

The new versions are definitely "all passion spent" and a bit dusty. They don't need the coda and don't get it.

Posted by: Svensker at November 2, 2009 03:46 PM

Incidentally, I was quite sincere when I said I love your writing about Bach; I'm just not much of a "Wow, thank you for that great post" kind of guy," and I'm not really big on participating in online debates, either, although I like to read them...

Posted by: godoggo at November 2, 2009 09:55 PM