Friday, January 21, 2011

The Big Question Part 1: Meshuggah, Pandit Jasraj, and the Minor 2nd

       Why do tone, harmony, rhythm and melody make us feel things?

    Let's discuss some elements, and put some knowledge together.  Here are a few elemental examples for you:
     Check out this Meshuggah song, "Future Breed Machine" (Don't be scared, it's just music!):

   The guitar comes in at 26 seconds playing a high pitched minor second.   That interval played that high in that rhythm sounds like a classic digital alarm clock.  Tone, rhythm, and pitch are factors in the way this music makes us feel, but  if there's one element of this excerpt that best induces discomfort, it's the harmony of the minor second.  Think about a low minor second played in a slow rhythm on a marimba.  Even that causes a bit of discomfort.

     The two opening notes of the Jaws theme are also a minor second apart.  The most important difference between Jaws and Meshuggah is that the notes in the Jaws theme are sequential as opposed to simultaneous, melody as opposed to harmony.  Although the effect seems diminished, it seems to have the same discomforting principle working for it. Melody and harmony are differentiated only by time, and time can be pretty goopy when it comes to humans, music, and consciousness.

     Why does the minor 2nd make us feel the way it does?  The answer is not: "Because of western musical traditions".  My theory for the answer is "Because our rapidly vibrating eardrums are uncomfortable and a dissonant interval like a minor 2nd carries more information, and is therefore more difficult for the brain to process than a consonant interval."  The minor 2nd is one of the more complicated 2 note harmonies that we experience. Every note when played generates overtones. It would be a more simple harmony to play a fifth or an octave, because those intervals are already being heard as overtones when you hear one note. Those thoughts brings up another question: How far in music does "Simple = comfortable" go? That will be further discussed on this blog eventually. For now, let's keep our heads in the minor 2nd game.

In Indian classical music, most of the time, there is harmony between the note in the melody and the root note (The root note is usually quite constant).  Traditional Indian music plays with the feeling of tension and resolve the same way traditional western music does.  It often uses the minor second to cause discomfort, and resolves it to the unison or octave for relief.  I love this traditional Indian singer, Pandit Jasraj!
Check him out!

I would love to hear your comments, theories and/or knowledge on this subject.



  1. This post makes me want to experiment with minor 2nds some more.

    In other news, I really dig the Shiva imagery in that raag.

  2. Me too! On both fronts. I believe there is nobody in the world who couldn't learn something from Panjit Jasraj.

  3. Tom, you should view the Leonard Bernstein / Norton lectures he gave at Harvard years ago. (They're available for rent from Netflix, I think.)

    In short, Bernstein equates linguistics and the evolution in spoken language with the evolution of music.