With the arrival of Labor Day, we naturally think about starting up a new year. This autumn, more than ever, the coming year seems filled with uncertainties and challenges. Yet, even in turbulent times, if we can remember that much is still basically right with the world–that there is an underlying order and stability even in the midst of change–our optimism, and with it our resilience, can grow stronger.
Music has an ability to help us viscerally feel this order and stability…often, surprisingly, through very simple means. Today we hope to give you a fuller understanding of how this happens.
For instance, did you know that some common pitch relationships–just 2 or 3 pitches a certain distance or interval apart–can evoke strong positive feelings in human beings? Did you know that these sound intervals appear again and again in a broad range of musical styles, over many cultures and centuries? There is something about them that resonates profoundly in the ear, heart, and mind.
To give you a demo of this phenomenon, let’s start with Johnny Cash’s 1956 hit song, “I Walk the Line.” Even before beginning the first verse, Cash gets himself (and us) musically and psychologically oriented by humming in the pitch of F. Then we hear the bass line of the guitar oscillate between the 2 pitches of F and C, which are 5 steps apart. Here’s how it sounds in the song. This is a very basic interval in music called the Perfect Fifth.
It’s almost impossible to get the two pitches of the Perfect Fifth out of your head once you hear them together. They keep repeating, following the refrain “Because you’re mine,” solidly anchoring the song’s 5 verses, even though each verse is sung in a different key. The Perfect Fifth actively embodies the comfort and stability this relationship creates for the singer.
Listen to “I Walk the Line” with this in mind.
What makes the Perfect Fifth so universally effective? One way to explain it is this: the Perfect Fifth (5 tones apart), its close relative the Perfect Fourth (4 tones apart), and the Octave (8 tones apart, as in C to C) are all called Primary Intervals. These are actually pitches (or overtones) generated by any vibrating string, column of air, and the human voice. These each vibrate as a whole and in sections.
Pythagoras, the great Greek mathematician (you may recall him from high school geometry) is usually credited with first demonstrating that precise numerical ratios define the relationship between the pitch and the vibrating length of anything making a sound. Try this with your own voice. Make an “m” sound first, then add an “o” to make “om.” Hear the difference?
From the Middle Ages on, these discoveries of Pythagoras were developed into a theory poetically called “The Music of the Spheres” : a view of the entire cosmos that put the earth at the center of the planets and other heavenly bodies which moved around Earth in precise ratios, emitting their own individual musical sounds. Shakespeare uses this image in the world of his plays. As the Shakespearian scholar G.B. Harrison explain, “It was believed that the planets in their motion each made a musical note, the whole forming a perfect harmony.” The natural order in general, and the fate of mankind in particular, was believed to be determined by these movements in the heavens.
While the earth isn’t the center of the universe any more, it is still profoundly true that something exists which we might call “the quiver of life”: there are universal rhythms or pulses in everything from the stars to our own heartbeats, which underlie and connect the micro- and macro- cosmos.
Richard Strauss draws on this connection with thrilling effect in his “Introduction” to Thus Spake Zarathustra (1896), inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s poem of the same name. You’ll immediately recognize the music from the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s class movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In his poem Nietzsche addresses a great human dilemma: the conflicting needs for solitude and for human community. When Zarathustra (aka Zoroaster, who becomes the founder of a religion) had the 30-something crisis, he went out to live in a cave in the mountains. But after 10 years of isolation, he has a change of heart and feels, in Nietzsche’s tender words, “a need of outstretched hands.” That is, he wants to return to life with others, without losing the wisdom gained from time spent alone contemplating the cosmic order of things.
Strauss conveys this burning desire to integrate the two worlds by calling on music to ask the big cosmic question posed by Zarathustra, who cries out to the rising sun: “You mighty star! What happiness would be yours if you did not have those for whom you shine?” With this question Nietzsche underscores the crucial importance of human life in the cosmic order. This is expressed musically by the sound of four unison trumpets playing a rising three-note motif consisting of a Perfect Fifth (C-G) interlocking with a Perfect Fourth (G-C). This powerful motif is stated three times. Listen to savor how much is conveyed by such simple means in about 2 minutes’ worth of music.
To help you understand overtones, Josh has added a brief explanation and piano demonstration which you can listen to here.
If you listen closely to your own favorite great music, you’ll start to notice that many pieces employ the Perfect Fifth and Perfect Fourth for precisely the same reason Johnny Cash and Richard Strauss do. Pay attention to the effects on your nervous system and imagination. This is one of easiest ways to increase your awareness of how music moves us so profoundly for the better.
If you have questions or comments, leave them in the box below and we’ll gladly respond to them there.