Radiohead: What IS that note?
Read first: Scales
The theory posts take some time to write, so I’ll take a break once in a while and do some “unweaving” posts, looking at actual music that touches on the ideas we’ve covered so far.
For personal reasons, there’s only one place to start. When I taught music theory, I’d ask students to bring in recordings of music they loved. We’d play a minute of something, then talk for a few more minutes about what was going on there. Applied theory, always my favorite part of the class.
One day, one of my freshman theory students — I wish I could remember who it was — gave me one of the best musical gifts I’ve ever received.
She introduced me to Radiohead.
The song was Paranoid Android, and I knew within the first minute that we wouldn’t do anything else that day. I’ll talk about that song again at some point, but we have to cover more theory first.
Another Radiohead song uses the ideas in the recent post about scales (read that first if you haven’t — this post will make more sense). The post shows how octaves can be broken up an infinite number of ways, including exotic sequences of steps producing unique emotional palettes that are different from the major and minor we’re used to hearing. There are even microtonal steps that would fall in the cracks of the piano keyboard if they were foolish enough to wander onto one.
Radiohead’s atmospheric masterpiece How To Disappear Completely uses both a nonstandard scale and microtones. Listen first (5:56):
There are a hundred things to talk about in there, like that cool, quiet walking bass that starts around 0:21, cutting across the guitar in a laid-back polyrhythm. But let’s look at what he’s doing with pitch, especially the scale and the use of microtones.
The song is in F# not-quite-minor. Six of the seven steps in the scale got the memo for F# minor — F#, A, B, C#, D, E — but the second note, which should be G#, is G-natural instead, just a half step above the key note. That’s one of the things that made the Byzantine scale sound exotic. But this time the scale is F# , which has this nice dark quality. When he sings In a little while, I’ll be gone, listen to the note on I’ll. That’s the lowered second (excerpt 18 sec):
He really leans into it later on as the whole chord, not just one note, is on G (excerpt 36 sec):
The microtonality happens mostly in the sliding mush of strings later on. I especially love the moment when he has you whirling in a microtonal cloud of strings, then suddenly POP — the cloud disperses and you’re back in the clear tonally (excerpt 24 sec):
Just a stunning effect. But my favorite thing about this amazing song is one note — that high siren in the distance at the start. It’s a note to haunt your dreams. What the hell is up with that note? (excerpt 23 sec)
It took me a long time to realize why that pitch sounded so otherworldly: it’s a microtone, a pitch in the crack between A and A#.
But even before I figured that out, it worked. And that distant, haunting siren is still a big part of what makes this astonishing piece work for me.