Comments: "God's Song"

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