Thursday, September 25, 2014

Major to Minor

The Autumnal Equinox came and went without comment. Summer is officially over and the calendar now reads Fall. This morning my neighbor’s redwood deck is shining from last night’s rain. The bright orange of the wood pleases the eye and signals some hope for rains to come in drought-stricken California. Last night, we ate dinner in the dark and it was only 7:15 pm. The few deciduous trees in San Francisco all seem to be on our driving route to school and the first splashes of color have emerged. Though the days are shorts-worthy, the feeling of Fall is in the air and it’s a welcome one.

Of course, I love Summer, with its long days of freedom, its sunny exterior and bright optimism. It’s the time to run and jump into the arms of the natural world, dive into the waters of the lake or ocean, tramp up a mountainside with you backpack on your back, picnic in the park, swing in a hammock and look up at the clouds. Its music is the major scale all the way— happy, bouncy, open.

But Fall holds a special place in my heart, even if the San Francisco variety is so far away from my East Coast childhood. The days grow shorter, the air has a smell to it, nights begin to beckon you to curl up on the couch with your Dickens novel and maybe it’s time to light a fire. The dinner table is heaped with the harvest of squash in its many glories, crisp apples and pears, sweet potato soups, fresh bread from the oven, a thicker, heartier fare to fortify you for the winter days to come. The music of Fall is minor all the way— not sad, but with a hint of sweet melancholy, intimate, inward-turning, poignant. Nature is glorious in its color, but it is the human community that rises to the forefront, the sense of huddling together with steaming cups of hot cider.

Equating Fall with the musical minor scale got me thinking—why is the minor scale so evocative? One theory has to do with the harmonic series. This is the law of physics that explains that when a string is struck or a column of air blown through a tube, there is a fundamental vibration that creates a note, say C. But there are also sub-vibrations— the string vibrating at half its length that creates an overtone, a much softer tone that blends with the fundamental. The first overtone is C an octave higher. Then comes G, then another C. This is why the oldest elemental form of music— be it bagpipe, didgeridoo, Indian tambura or Orff bass xylophone— plays a drone to create the solid ground from which the melody flies— C and G, Do and Sol, 1 and 5. The next overtone is E and lo and behold, there’s the major triad that we’re so familiar with—C-E-G (though in a different order: C-G-E).  From here the overtones pile up in smaller and fainter intervals.

The minor triad—in this case, C Eb G— is minor because of that Eb. And it turns out that this note is the 19th overtone! Way up there, far away from the natural elemental sounding of the first overtones. Some have theorized that this is the attraction of the minor sound and its association with human emotion over the natural world. We are 19 tones removed from our home ground, feeling a little alienated, exiled, wistful and yes, sad, and turning to each other for company and solace. Not a proven scientific theory, but interesting, yes?

How does this actually play out in the world of music? Well, Autumn in New York and Autumn Leave are both in minor keys, but then again, so is Gershwin’s Summertime. Vivaldi’s three movements in the Autumn part of The Four Seasons are in major, minor and major respectively. Robin Williamson’s October Song is in major, the Mama and Papa’s California Dreamin’ in minor. So much for my theory. But that’s the way of art— no simplistic formulas, many faces to any theme and yes, major music can be wistful and poignant (I once made a 5-year old cry singing Go Tell Aunt Rhody) and minor songs upbeat and energetic (the version I do of a ring play called Soup, Soup).

Whether major or minor or in-between, Happy Fall to all!

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