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August 04, 2009

"God's Song"

By: Bernard Chazelle

If you were God, you'd be thanking your lucky star that the leaders of your opposition consist of blowhards named Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. But, if you were God and you listened to Randy Newman's "God's Song," then perhaps you'd begin to worry.

On the musical side of Newman's theology, here are two tidbits:

At (0:59), the song's tonal center moves to the iv, ie it modulates from Cm to the iv (Fm). Newman grew up in New Orleans and actually knows about music, so he does what Bach did in "Es is vollbracht," at (0:21), ie, he modulates to the V of Fm, ie, C. In the 19c, Baroque harmony got trimmed and simplified. Randy Newman harmonizes his music much as Schubert would. It has none of Bach's complexity but it's still elegant. Though I can imagine Bach rolling his eyes and paraphrasing Melanie, "What have they done to my harmonies?"

At (1:14), another lovely classical device. Instead of going i-iv, you take it to their relative majors, ie, instead of Cm-Fm, you play Eb-Ab. You find these kinds of substitutions a lot in gospel music but rarely in British rock.

Everything else is pretty much straightforward.

PS: Some readers have asked me what I meant by moving the tonal center, as opposed to just changing chords. There's a huge difference and I'll try to give a quick explanation. I'll use Am (to avoid accidentals).

1. Say you're playing in Am. That means your Western ear is preconditioned to a certain set of sounds, specifically the scale of the relative major of Am, which is C (that's a 3rd higher than A). Never forget the single most amazing fact about music, which is that a major scale and a minor one share exactly the same notes! So your ear is ready for any combination of A,B,C,D,E,F,G, and none others. Suppose now that you are tired of playing the Am chord. What can you do? The rule is, move sequentially along the cycle of fifths either clockwise or counterclockwise, and you'll be fine. OK, say you move counterclockwise. That lands in you in Dm (the fourth of Am). The Dm chord consists of the notes D,F,A: they're all in your key of C so it's all legit. You can play Dm all you want. It sounds different from Am, but your ear is still glued to Am, ie, to the key of C. Your tonal center is still Am. Say you get tired of Dm and you go clockwise from Am, which takes you to Em. The notes are E,G,B. They're also in the key of C and your tonal center is still Am.

2. You can try any combination of these 3 chords (and many pop songs are based on just these 3). The chords have different names, ie, Am, Dm, Em, but you're always in the key of C. The tonal center is still Am. You're still eating the same chocolate chip cookie: you can eat the chocolate chips separately and then the cookie; they're different just like Am, Dm, Em, but they all fit within the same snack.

3. When Randy Newman moves to the iv at (0:59), it's just as though he's moving from Am to Dm (if we transpose his Cm to our Am). Right? So his tonal center hasn't changed, correct? No. Wrong!!!! His tonal center has moved to Dm. It's now an entirely new dish, with its own key. He's now drinking a milkshake. The natural scale of Dm is the scale of F (the scale of "Sultans of Swing"): it's D, E, F,G,A,Bb,C. There's a B flat, so the tonal center cannot be Am. But wait a minute! Newman doesn't even play a Bb, so how do I know he's moved to the key of Dm if he does not even play any note in that key that's not in the old one! How do you know you've landed in France if you don't even hear anyone speak French?

4. I know because Randy Newman played the A major chord. OK, fine. So I take it that A major has a B flat somewhere and that was the giveaway that supposedly told my ear that we've moved to Dm. I get it. The A major with its Bb gave it away! That music stuff is really trivial.

5. Well,... unfortunately... A major does not have a Bb. Now, for sure, Newman played a note that's not in Am, so we know we're somewhere else. But where? Why should we think we're in Dm if we hear a note Bb that's not even in that key?

6. Beats me. Whatever that Bach dude was smoking, I'd like to try. This thing is whack.

7. You're right to feel frustrated. There's a long history behind this madness. Before we get to it, let's recap. Our tonal center is Am, so the notes are A,B,C,D,E,F,G. We want to move to Dm, where the notes are D, E, F,G,A,Bb,C. Except for that Bb these are the same notes. Now the question is, Why aren't we playing Bb to signal the ear we're moving from Am to the tonal center of Dm?

8. To understand why, we need to go back in history. Decades before Bach, musicians began to have doubts about the natural minor scale. Recall that in Dm, that's D, E, F,G,A,Bb,C,D. They all agreed it sounded fine but it had one major shortcoming. It's got no leading tone. You see, when you play a tune in Dm, you always end it in Dm. Everyone felt that when you played that last chord, your audience should have been expecting it. But how do you make someone expect something musically. Easy, before you play that final Dm, play another chord that strongly suggests the next one to come is Dm. Trouble is, whatever chords you can try near Dm on the cycle of 5ths, it all sucks. The resolution to Dm is not inaudible but it's weak. The reason is that to signal your motion to Dm, you should play the closest note before that D. That would Db. Play Db.

9. Excuse me, Herr Bach, but Db is not in the key of Dm!, so sie haben ein gross problem! Well, promote Db as a full-fledged member of the key. Get rid of that C and instead stick Db. Now you get D, E, F,G,A,Bb,Db,D. It sounds so nice we'll call it the harmonic scale of Dm. So now instead of going from Am to Dm, we'll play a Db over the A. But that's the major 3rd of A, so we get A major. For those of you who can't get enough of that stuff, the reason we love to play A7 and not just A, is because that flatted 7th (G) leads us down nicely to F, which is the minor 3rd of Dm. In other words, A7 has two notes that sandwich your ear from below (Db) and above (G) and force it into a necessary resolution in Dm. So you end up with the fundamental cadence V7-i. To modulate from Am to Dm, ie to change the tonal center, you must go through A7. The amazing thing is that there are still other reasons I haven't mentioned why that's the right thing to do. It's like an Agatha Christie novel where the suspect had so many motives for killing his victim the only mystery is why the murder didn't happen earlier.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at August 4, 2009 07:06 PM

A nice post Bernard. Yes the A7 wants to resolve to the D minor, the tyranny of the dominant/tonic cycle. Western ears are accustomed hearing music moving in fourths and fifths and this is an interesting way of explaining what an actual modulation is.

So if you have this progression – F#minor/B7/E minor/A7/D minor we have a definite modulation to D minor but what is the function of the E minor chord? Is it acting as the II minor of D minor or the I minor of the B7 chord?

Posted by: Rob Payne at August 5, 2009 12:37 AM

I think the stumbling block is that the 1-3-5 triads on the major scale are major and minor chords until the seventh root (second root on the relative minor scale), then it's an oddball diminished.

This can be clear to anyone beginning piano. Just play the all the 1-3-5 intervals of the C scale:

Dm Em F-A-C F G Am Huh?? Bdim! What the hell am I supposed to do with this chord?

In the relative minor the second triad in the scale is a diminished :

A-C-E Am/ B-D-F Bdim! It doesn't sound right. Something's gotta give. Something has to be flatted or sharped to make sense to the ear.

Posted by: Paul Avery at August 5, 2009 06:48 AM

This is A Tiny Revolution right? You know, the places with the jokes and stickin it to the man. Right? Nah, just kidding - this stuff (what is it, musicology?) is esoteric though. Am I just extremely uncultured or did I miss a crucial and vital part of my education? I have always felt that if I knew how musicians do what they do the art would be robbed of a certain mystique. I don't want to know why it sounds so good! Probably like anything else though, the more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. You guys deconstruct Kid A and then I'll be impressed, heh :)

Posted by: Distressed at August 5, 2009 08:26 AM

Diminished chords bothered me for forty years. I'm learning to love them now that my fingered don't work so well.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at August 5, 2009 10:00 AM

Distressed: I'm definitely uncultured too, which is why I really like "Short people" better than this one, despite Newman's fabulous accent. The only quibble I have is that I haven't actually sensed much of a view that "the more you learn, the more you realise how little you know." But I'm so overcome with envy that maybe I missed it.

Posted by: N E at August 5, 2009 10:34 AM

"How do you know you've landed in France if you don't even hear anyone speak French?"

--They make you share a room with Christopher Hitchens, and maybe pay his mini-bar bill, even though you just came for a nice quiet visit in pleasant company.

Posted by: Richard Dawkins (wink) at August 5, 2009 11:02 AM

They lyrics are pretty good, too:

Cain slew Abel Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

"Man means nothing, he means less to me
than the lowiliest cactus flower
or the humblest yucca tree.
He chases round this desert
cause he thinks that's where I'll be
that's why I love mankind.

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
from the squalor and the filth and the misery.
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me!
That's why i love mankind"

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak.
They said "Lord the plague is on the world.
Lord no man is free.
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea.
Lord, if you won't take care of us
Won't you please please let us be?"

And the Lord said
And the Lord said

"I burn down your cities--how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we.
You must all be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why i love mankind
You really need me
That's why i love mankind"

Posted by: Woody at August 5, 2009 11:40 AM

If you want to analyze a Newman tune, try Davey the Fatboy. It's a killer.

Posted by: steve the artguy at August 5, 2009 01:55 PM

Didn't Davey grow up to become the fat man you can't fool?

Posted by: Paul Avery at August 5, 2009 02:22 PM

Rob: Good question. Both answers are Ok so maybe the phrasing helps our ear decide which is which when. And in jazz wouldn't you often use tritone subs along the cycle? (Which then would make the question even more metaphysical.)

Paul: Yes, the Locrian mode is a bit weird but fun. You can play ii7b5 before the V (as is often done in My Funny Valentine) and it'll sound lovely. Long live the half diminished chords.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 5, 2009 02:32 PM


Absolutely. Tritone subs and alt chords appeal to my disposition--learn the rules, then learn how break them. I'm a kid in a candy store.

Posted by: Paul Avery at August 5, 2009 03:45 PM

Exactly, the E minor is functioning as both at the same time. Its called a pivot chord because of the dual purpose. Yes, the easiest place t use substitutions is within a II/V/I which is part of the cycle. That’s why I think more in terms of chords than I do scales. Really, if you know what you are doing you can play any note over any chord. It’s a liitle bit different than the play this scale with this chord approach. The scale/chord approach is a good place to start but there is just so much more to it than that. It’s kind of like saying a masterpiece painting is nothing but colors smeared over canvas which may be true to a point but leaves out an awful lot.

Posted by: Rob Payne at August 5, 2009 05:31 PM

Marvelous post! Well put, but I don't see how anyone without a background in music theory would come close to understanding it. 'Distressed' seems to confirm that feeling. It's just a long tortuous way from knowing 'notes' are somehow different from sounds, to understanding how they affect us subjectively, and make us 'want' certain notes to follow others, even make us feel delight when our expectations are anticipated and derailed with a substitution. You go a long way towards explaining why not just any substitution will do. In fact, it's a joy to read, for me. But I wish I could think of a way to get it across to 'Distressed', as well. Jargon seems to be necessary to understanding, and also one of the most significant barriers to it. Any thoughts on that conundrum?

Posted by: Justin Parker at August 5, 2009 05:52 PM

Bach? BACH? I thought he learned it from his Uncle Al!

Posted by: drip at August 5, 2009 06:04 PM

Ow! My head hurts!

Anybody know a nice, basic primer on music theory?

Posted by: Svensker at August 6, 2009 08:38 AM

Atheists are blowhards because they want people to... what? Think logically? Have to prove their claims about imaginary sky beings? Think that the world would be better if people stopped blowing themselves up in public? I guess people involved in actual religions aren't blowhards for believing mythology that is obviously regurgitated from far more ancient cultures, huh? Those people are BRILLIANT. They never do things like pray for their kid when they should take them to the hospital.

For someone who approaches music so scientifically, you sure don't have much respect for Dawkins, an actual scientist, and leader in his field of study.

Atheists are still the most distrusted and disliked group in the US. Thanks for helping spread the hate.

Posted by: Christopher Wing at August 6, 2009 12:44 PM

"Atheists are still the most distrusted and disliked group in the US. Thanks for helping spread the hate."

--I have to place my vote on arabs for that one, but I take your point. Whether you are reviled as an atheist I think depends on your community and the circles you run in. For me in my urban East-coast life it's no real problem at all. There certainly isn't an atheist "no fly" list. And from the 1990 to 2000, atheists or "non-religious" (I can't remember which title was used) were demographically the largest growing group in the US, increasing from about 8% to about 15% of the population. I suspect the growth has continued, if not quite at that rate. Of course, many religious people can imagine nothing worse than not believing in God, but in my experience most people aren't THAT religious and get along with anyone who seems ok and whom they haven't been brainwashed into hating. Like arabs.

I think i'd still give gay people second place, though among young people that seems to be dropping off fast too. (I find these demographic changes encouraging.)

P.S.--I'm sure the professor didn't want to spread hate for atheists. The French generally love atheists. It's almost a synonym for French. And once he got past trashing poor old Dawkins, his post was really a work of love. I didn't understand a word of it, except that a major scale and a minor scale share the same notes and Bach was smoking something, but I thought that love/joy shone through. It's mostly why I read his music theory posts, because I know before I start that I won't understand much.

Posted by: N E at August 6, 2009 01:14 PM

Atheists are blowhards because they want people to... what? Think logically?

BC didn't say "atheists" Mr Wing. He said "Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens". Personally I would have preferred "If you were God, you'd be thanking your lucky star* that the leaders of your opposition consist of bigots like Harris and Hitchens and their should-know-better useful idiot Dawkins" but, then, I just loves me some nuance.

This thread changed, man! This thread used to be about the music!

*just the one?

Posted by: RobWeaver at August 6, 2009 09:08 PM

I love Randy Newman and I'm just starting to learn a bit of music theory, so I believe this post is awesome. I'm also an atheist who enjoys reading Harris and, especially, Dawkins (you can have Hitchens) and I give the New Aggressive Atheists a lot of credit for the uptick in folks thinking this whole imaginary magic sky-fairy thing through. Having Randy on our side doesn't hurt, either, of course. His most recent album ("Harps and Angels"!) is perfectly wonderfully blasphemous yet melodic.

Posted by: Susan at August 9, 2009 02:00 PM

It's in D minor, the saddest of all keys.

Posted by: Duncan at August 10, 2009 01:19 PM