I was gearing myself up to take a test for a marketing class the next day. As I prepared myself for study, I loaded up Spotify on my laptop. Needing some music to drown out the noisy people around me and help me focus, I typed ‘study music’ into the search bar. One playlist that caught my eye was called Epic Study Music. I was intrigued. I pressed play and set to work.
After the first couple of songs, a new one started playing and the last thing I could do was focus.
The piece made me feel so uncomfortable. It created a knot in my stomach and made me feel like my whole body was itching. I was entranced by the haunting sound of it. It felt like if the world were to end this would be resonating in the hearts of the witnesses of Earth’s demise. The music was perfect. I couldn’t get enough and I didn’t want the knot to go away. What piece of music am I talking about?
It is a track from the Inception soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. Aptly titled ‘Dream Is Collapsing‘. You can check it out below.
I recommend pressing play, closing your eyes, and breathing along with the music.
I took a moment to think about why I was enjoying such a dark piece that made me feel so uncomfortable. As humans wouldn’t it be an evolutionary advantage to be only pleased by comforting sounds that cause us no feeling of threat? I wanted to understand better.
Music has been a significant part of my life for the past 14-16 years. I have played several instruments and still play guitar and occasionally sing to this day but I have had quite a shallow understanding of why music is as compelling as it is.
Over the summer, I picked up a little book called How Music Works by John Powell. Powell, a physicist and trained musician, took some of the questions I had about this mysterious phenomenon that affects us all every day and made it so simple that I couldn’t help but understand it.
I’d like to share with you one key thing I took away (I have simplified it down even further) from Powell’s book and how that relates to the haunting Zimmer piece that you just listened to.
For those trained in music, this will be music 101 but for those not so versed on the auditory verse, this will be an introduction to the workings of why music sounds good.
It is an explanation of Major and Minor keys.
All music is derived from notes which are individual sounds that are pleasant and beautiful to the human ear. Like all noise, these notes emit a sound wave that is picked up by the ear and thus translated by the brain into the note that you are hearing. These sound waves have a frequency. The frequency of the wave measures how many times the wave will go up and down per second, and it is measured in Hertz (or Hz). So for example, the standard A note has a frequency of 110 Hz meaning a sound wave of an instrument playing A will go up and down 110 times in one second.
Music occurs when the sound waves are harmonious and have a rhythm to them. So if we play different notes at the same time, there will be several waves coming at us.
What is important to understand is how the waves interact with each other as they hit your ear. They waves play with each other as they prepare attack on your auditory system. They push each other when they are in sync and create a better sounding piece of music. If the notes don’t match up, meaning the frequencies are incongruous, then the music gets distorted and it doesn’t sound good.
The middle C note has a frequency of about 261 Hz. It will sound good with any other C note on the piano because the numbers will all fit in nicely together. C5 has a frequency of 523 Hz so the numbers are quite divisible by each other and make for nice easy numbers. But play a C4 with with a C4# (the black key next to the middle C) and the number will start to get messy. The waves are similar but different enough that when played together they will cause disharmony and music that just sounds awful.
Now we move on to keys.
Keys are groups of 7 notes that sound good together. How do we determine which group of notes sound good together? Simply its finding which group of sound waves sound the best together.
A major key is the key in which the group of 7 notes all support each other very well and make for a very confident sounding and cheery piece of music.
Minor keys on the other hand have most of the same notes as the Major keys but a few of the notes that were fitting very well together in the major key are substituted for some notes that don’t fit quite as well. It takes away some of the confidence and ‘oomph’ of the music and adds in a little more mystery, a little more eeriness.
Side note: It’s important to note that this isn’t always the case. Traditional indian music is played in a lot of minor keys and those bastards are always cheery and happy.
A really good example of minor keys is Ligeti’s The Devil’s Staircase. Get ready to feel uncomfortable.
Finding beauty in the ugly.
It is important to realize that despite not having perfect harmony or groups of notes that mesh well together, we can be entranced by this type of music.
Composers, musicians, any creator of music understands this fundamental human truth; that we as humans get BORED when we are not exposed to a variety of experiences. So we spice things up, we shake shit up. The artists give you the happy, the confident, the songs full of love.
But there is more to the human experience than just good, is there not? So they give you the sad, the mysterious, the angry, the anxious. They make you feel worry and despair with their music. But no matter how bad they make us feel, it is hard for us not to appreciate the beauty behind it.
Can we translate this to our lives?
Can we see moments of success, achievement, love as the major chords of our lives. Everything meshes well together, everything flows together. It is powerful and positive experiences.
But what about the minor chord experiences in life. Those times when things don’t go your way, when all seems bleak, when you are broke, lonely and in despair. Can we find some salvation in that? Can we find beauty?
When the waves of life come at us and they cause disharmony, it creates a beautiful symphony of life does it not? Can we start to appreciate the things that goes ‘wrong’ in life as maybe a different but beautiful symphony that is meant for us to be enjoyed.
Maybe we can even start to appreciate the fault we find in others by relating this lesson of the minor chord to those in our life that do not meet our standards.
How often do you come across someone as perfect as yourself? ALMOST NEVER, ’emIright????
But due to the fact that we have to deal with beings not as perfect as us, maybe their symphony of good traits and traits that we perceive as sub par can be viewed as a beautiful and unique piece of music.
Life is interesting and meaningful because of its disharmonies, its ups and downs, its imperfections.
So close your eyes, breathe with it and enjoy the minor chords of life.