Monday, April 14, 2008


Here I am talking about the meaning of music. I don't mean the meaning of specific lyrics, I mean the meaning expressed by music itself, unencumbered by words. If anyone has thoughts about this I'd love to hear them.

The video is ten minutes long. Sorry about the length.


Pseudonym said...

Probably should have put my large comment here instead of on YouTube. Here it is, anyway:

A couple of comments from an amateur music theorist about the opening phrase.

First, the "shape". If you imagine drawing a wiggly line that goes up when the pitch goes up and down, the shape of this phrase is quite complex for something with only six notes in it. Compare with a simpler melody, such as "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", which just goes up then down.

This complex shape is on top of a very simple harmony: Only one chord! It's a complex chord, and quite discordant, but it's still a "held" chord, like a pedal point. Putting a complex melody on top of complex harmony would be a mistake here, because it would destroy the clarity.

Secondly, the repetition. One of the reasons why we appreciate repeated themes is for the same reason why you have "three guys" in a joke (e.g. the Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman).

You need at least two instances to "get the idea". If the idea is strong enough (and appearing as it does at the beginning, this is pretty strong), you can vary the second one only at the end (with the chord change here). If it's not, you need to quote twice and vary the third, much like as in the joke.

Finally, a complaint: Movies don't have overtures any more!

Modern Hollywood formulaic thinking says that you have 10 minutes to hook the audience by introducing the protagonist's normal life, and then introducing the inciting event.

Why aren't you allowed to use music to hook the audience instead? Is it because in the post-studio environment, you have ten pages to hook the story department, and you're hardly going to put down music to do that?

Post-YouTube thought: Would The Wizard of Oz get picked up by a studio today? Given the lack of a "hook" in the first ten minutes, probably not, unless it was already a successful stage show.

But it probably wouldn't get made on Broadway today, either, because, once again, it disobeys the formula. It doesn't even have a strong "opening number".

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Pseudo; You're right, there's a held, one-chord harmony under that beginning [I used to work with a rock musician (Perry Keefer) who went around the studio playing only the harmony for popular rock songs and he was always disappointed that no one could tell what song he was doing]. Layered on top of the harmony, at the end of each of the two lines, a kind of punctuation would come in, in the form of a wave (in the sense of ocean wave) like sound. The second time the wave overwhelms the harmony and ushers in the next ...what's the word....theme!

What you said about repetition makes a lot of sense and applies to visual choreography as well. You create an expectation then deviate.

True, so true, about the probable fate of Oz if it were submitted today. About music, I believe music should carry as much of the story as possible. It's a superior form of communication. Of course words can be handled as music.

Nico said...

Very well-spoken Eddie! No worries about the time limit. Why couldn't you have been my teacher in high school??

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

Well, it was a great idea to use a piece of music that so many of us are familiar with; it definitely crystalized your point about what each part meant when broken down.

It's an amazing story hearing about how Harold Arlen came up with the melody for 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow', and if you hear the story, the sentiment he was feeling at the time, not feeling too good, was reflected in the emotional content ( as Bruce Lee would call it ) of the song.

Also, don't worry about your videos being too long. That's just a precautionary measure. They don't actually police video length, because people have videos up which are up to an hour.

Glad your iMovie is working again, but don't skimp out on the cartoon posts, buddy! Great post!

- trevor.

Adam T said...

There's a fantastic radio show called Radiolab that broadcasts out of New York that covered this very topic in one of its episodes.

You can hear it here

I can't recommend it enough. S'good, s'good, s'good.

Jenny said...

This is a great topic, but isn't it a pain to have cue and re-cue the music from a cassette? I hate it when that happens.

I'm with Psuedo-ditto what he said.
I've always loved this overture, it's a typically great piece of grand, golden age studio orchestration.

I'm sure the links between musical understanding and language has been heavily explored by loads of'd be fun to read more about it(seems like one of those topics that would have been covered entertainingly in the old Time?Life science series of books--I just loved those).

In hi skul I auditioned for a musical for a director who'd directed me in a Shakespeare play not long before. I had my audition song("As Time Goes By"--went over great, with all these other girls singing modern pop, lol), did it and got a juicy part with my own number(BOAST! heh). Anyway, here's the reason I bring it up: he told me later that he'd been sure I could sing before my audition, from the sound of my vice-the pitch and variance of my speech.
I thought that was darned interesting and since then I've noticed that I too can tell if someone has good pitch or is a natural singer by their speaking voice. I guess the connection is obvious, but then it seemed so mysterious and magical to me. So yeah, seems to me human speech=music, really-just like birds and whales.

Back to your selection: it's interesting that the arranger chose to open with the quote from "Ding, Dong The Witch is Dead"(with that great shivering choral wail) first, before segueing into the "Over the Rainbow" theme.
Usually a romantic film like Oz was would have started with the overarcing theme, in this case "Rainbow", and later on bring in the snippet from the other songs--especially if said song is played to invoke menace and potential disaster as it's used here. I guess it has to do with the iconic status of not only the Wicked Witch, but the inciting plot device, the cyclone--one of the most famous things people knew from the classic Oz story in 1939. Have you ever tried reading the books, btw?

On another note(ha): whatever has happened to your glasses? Don't you wear them anymore? It's disconcerting to see you at length without them as you appear in these videos. Either you got Lasik or you're just plain vain. ; )

It's not like you have to don them-just that I always thought those were an important part of your persona. Didn't you?

Josh "Just What the Doctor Ordered" Heisie said...

I really like this kind of post Uncle Eddie. It makes new ideas percolate in my mind.

I love when old movies and radio shows and such open with such bravado. It's like "Holy crap I'm being taken to another realm, so unspeakably awesome that I can't even begin to comprehend it!"

Even if it's a crappy show, they've transported you to another world where, even if it's crap, it's crap on a higher, more fantastical level. It takes you out of the mundane and instantly shoves you into a much more exciting land where everything that happens is on a different plane.

If King Kong had opened with a lousy acoustica guitar song, it would have taken away from the wonder and excitement. We probably wouldn't even be excited about the giant ape and dinosaurs. With bland music, the monsters would look bland, and we'd be saying "What a lousy special effect! That's claymation!" rather than "Wow! This is an epic extravaganza!"

I'm looking forward to further music posts.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Adam: Thanks for the link! It's nice to know that someone who knows what she's doing agrees with this.

The format of Radiolab show was interesting: the cadences of speech, the sound editing, etc.

Jenny: I had an eye operation a year and a half ago and now I only need glasses for distance. I still like glasses though, and sometimes I wear them even when i don't have to. Some of the videos and photo essays I've done here have me wearing glasses.

How about you? Do you still wear them?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Trevor: I still haven't fixed the iMovie problem. I was able to make this video because I shot it on one take in PhotoBooth, sans editing.

Pseudonym said...

I've been thinking all night about fanfares. A lot of fanfares seem to work similarly to the opening of Oz.

Take one of the most famous fanfares, for example: Sunrise from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.

It starts off with a single long pedal note. (In this case, it's probably literally a note played on a pedal, since it's actually the lowest C on the pipe organ.)

There then follows a simple phrase played over that note, which ends with the two loud chords (C major to C minor), and the timpani solo, all still on the same pedal note.

The phrase is then repeated, except that the chords are reversed (C minor to C major), again all on the same pedal note.

On the third occurrence of the phrase (like the "third guy" in the joke), the chords are changed (C major to G major).

Compare this with some other famous fanfares, such as Aaron Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man, or even the Universal Logo.

The Jerk said...

you mentioned in the video "musical arguments," and i immediately thought of the classic Sid Caesar/Imogena Coca sketch, "Argument to Beethoven's 5th"

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

What's wrong with your iMovie software? I can probably help. I'm a videographer.

- trevor.

Aggie said...

Tritones are wonderful anticipating intervals!

Oooooh, what a wonderful musical analysis! One can say sooo much on just a few seconds of a piece. Please please pleeeease make more of these! Ten minutes isn't enough! :)

ted said...

Great post Eddie! I love to hear your ideas. So many different concepts discussed on a "cartoon" blog. The marriage of music and animation is a sorely missed idea in our modern times. I've been watching the first Popeye DVD collection, and the use of beats and timing in the animation is staggering! Such a powerful concept that isn't used at all anymore ( Well, not nearly enough anyways!)

Have you seen this clip of Bernstein speaking on his theory of music? Really insightful stuff.

Anonymous said...

I assume you were playing from the Turner CD of the "Wizard of Oz" soundtrack, which features many alternate and a few longer takes of Herbert Stothart's wonderful score. All the surviving orchestral stem recordings are on that collection, which only saw the light of day because Ted Turner liked movies. Sometimes it takes a billionaire on lithium.

Eshniner Forest said...

Music is invisible & can be controlled much like a painted or drawing. It helps to have ears but you dont need them. Their is this channel thats is quite good on youtube called Texas Country Reporter. One of the first vids they posted was about a blind painter. Heres the link - Its pretty neat.

Jenny said...

I of course remember that painful operation(at least the aftermath was awfully painful). I thought it had been to correct something else though--don't remember your saying it was a lasik procedure. Well, that's nice!

Yes, I've seen glasses on you here but here's always a false nose or something involved also so I assumed they are simply props to you now.
I have a beautiful pair of hornrimmed french glasses that I alternate with the naked eye look-contacts.
: )

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Forest: Interesting video!

Jenny: I had an extreme reaction to the anesthetic but I'm still glad I had the surgery. Now i read again.

Right now I'm reading the new history of Golden Books and Kaku's book on parallel universes. I don't know why the parallel thing interests me so much. I'm not sure I really believe in parallel universes. i guess what interests me are the other ideas contained in those books: empty space generating energy, mysterious repellent forces, the Higgs Boson that's in the news so frequently now....boy, the universe sure is a strange place!

Mitch L said...

I enjoyed watching the video.

I don't know much about music, so this is a nice way to learn a bit about music. I like the way you are explaining the different parts of the music piece.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Trevor: Thanks for the offer of help! I'll lug my imac to the Apple store tomorrow night and they'll probably solve the problem!

Jerk: Sid caesar!? you have good taste!

Aggie: Ten minutes is not enough!? Good for you!!! And you're right...tritones are a great way to go! I'll definitely put up more music posts but I'd better spread them out.

Vincent Waller said...

I love these little talks.

Marc Deckter said...

Great post! - music is certainly a very powerful tool for communication.

Your idea of music as a "game" is particularly interesting. Can you elaborate on that?

This is kind of off topic, but I just recently re-watched David Lynch's "Lost Highway" (it's been recently re-released on dvd in widescreen). And I noticed that one way of looking at the film's structure is as a musical structure - with it's re-occurring themes and variations on a theme - repeated phrases - etc...

This is one of my favorite topics - definitely looking forward to more.

pappy d said...

Another great thought-provoking post! I especially liked the idea of language as song. I once animated dialog to a track by Gary Marshall & I was struck by how every vowel was a pitch-perfect & every phrase had a melody to it.

Anonymous said...

An enlightening post as always, Eddie. Really loved it. But what would be your analysis of other types of music, like my favorite, blues? Not that new "electric blues" crap, but the great old stuff. I'd like you to analyze the song "How Long Blues" by Frank Stokes, if it's not too much trouble. You can find it on Youtube. Er, you like blues don't you?

Anonymous said...

To find the "How Long Blues" I wanted you to listen to, type in "Beale Street Sheiks" on Youtube. Thanks.

Jenny said...

I'm reading the Golden Books history too! Isn't it great? I've been meaning to post about it.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: It's a really great piece of music and I'm really glad you turned me on to it, but I probably won't try to talk about it here. I'm using music without lyrics, because it's easier to talk about.

Crumpled Up John! said...

It's also interesting to note the emotion memory that is triggered through music, where certain sounds are associated with certain moods and memories and how the use of those sounds alone or combined with others can make such an impact.

For example, something I noticed while watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which incorperates much of the same musical themes throughout each movie but changes them enough to make them entirely unique) is how the first movie uses a flute often as part of the Shire theme, but not for any other location, except near the end of the third movie when they are trying to gather enough strength to climb Mt. Doom. This scene of course has it's own theme and musical personality but when they seem to get the strength, there is the addition of the flute. It seems almost to show (in a much subtler way than, say, a flash back) that they are calling on memories from the Shire to grant them strength.

Just an interesting thing about themes and how they can combine to tell a completely different story.

Pseudonym said...

The "many worlds hypothesis" (i.e. parallel universes) is certainly an intriguing idea, but most Respectable Physicists(tm) think that as an explanation, it causes more problems than it solves.

(I have a grand total of two semesters of quantum physics under my belt, so this gives me the little knowledge required to be a dangerous thing, but FWIW, I happen to agree. It really does cause a lot of problems.)

I think that the best thing about it is that it's a beautiful piece of fiction. The idea of parallel universes, and alternate versions of us, is like the perfect thought experiment.

As we all know, humans have always worked out their problems through stories. Parallel universes are a great device for working out certain kinds of "what if" problems.

Marc Deckter said...

Nice LOTR observation Crumpled Up John!

I noticed the same type of idea in Star Wars. Two or three of the Darth Vader "Imperial March" notes are extremely subtly interwoven into the score when we first meet Anakin Skywalker, in episode 1. Great use of foreshadowing ala audio.

Jorge Garrido said...

John Williams also does a "Harry Potter" reference in the scene where Anakin delivers Baby Luke to Owen and Beru. The parallels are clear.

Darth Vader's theme is also a ripoff of "Mars Bringer Of War" which makes sense.

Ross Irving said...

Oh cool beans, Eddie! I get to see you on video for the first time, and I learned a lot from those ten minutes. I mean, I already understood that music is like a language and to tell the story and give us an idea of what it all means.

When you told me this in a new way, I learned even more about this principle. Repetition, playing a game was the biggest part of the new information I absorbed. All of that music hardly added up to ten seconds, and there's so much meaning in it. Holy crap.

For me, this gives me an idea for a reason as to why I don't like rap, focusing on just the music, no lyrics. It's too repetitive. In a way, that would be too much clarity, so hearing other repetitive songs would sort of muddy the differences between song to song. Right? Or wrong?

I absolutely LOVE the way movies were scored back then. Why do movies sound so boring now, music-wise?