Secondhand Music

The chance harmonies of everyday sounds may mean more than we think.

Secondhand Music

I WOKE recently, in the unfamiliar and unfurnished silence of a new apartment, into a hyperawareness of the music around me. Without recourse to radio, tapes, CDs, or television, I suddenly found myself aware of -- no, listening to -- a sort of secondhand music emanating from the machines and appliances nearby. My alarm clock woke me that morning, as it does every working day, on a distinctly musical note (B natural, to be precise). I shuffled sleepily to the refrigerator, which kept up a stoic hum (B-flat) as I reached into its guts for a frozen bagel. The bagel I subjected to the resolute drone (E) of the microwave, which concluded its efforts with a ding! (the B-flat an octave above the refrigerator hum) just as my teakettle began to whistle (A). Later that morning my subway train pulled me into town with a weary whine (F), and the office elevator deposited me on my floor with a relieved bleep (C-sharp). I entered the code (C) of the security system with a staccato flourish and was at work.

I recognized three main tones in my office that morning, a triad that seemed to be a constant. At the bottom was the deep drone of the heater. Above that was the idling of my computer -- a smug electronic purr. And whenever I picked up the phone, a dial tone sang insistently in my ear.

Was this music, or just background noise? The question set me off on a somewhat embarrassing hunt for an answer, which often had me bending down awkwardly in public places, pitch pipe in my mouth, trying to determine the notes played by computer printers, heating units, and the like. What was most interesting to me was the combinations of notes in my immediate environment. As my guide, I took Leonard Bernstein.

All forms that we have ever known ... have always been conceived in tonality, that is, in the sense of a tonal magnetic center, with subsidiary tonal relationships. This sense, I believe, is built into the human organism; we cannot hear two isolated tones, even devoid of any context, without immediately imputing a tonal meaning to them. We may differ from one another in the tonal meaning we infer, but we infer it nonetheless.


What tonal meaning, if any, could be inferred from the secondhand music all around me? The tones of the various appliances to which I was listening were a study in misalliances; they certainly didn't all go together, but I was hearing them together nonetheless. What this music means as an accompaniment to a day in the office -- or a night in bed, for that matter -- is worth considering.

NO other artistic medium moves us the way sound waves do, and in that regard music's meaning is emotional, in the word's original sense. The languages of music and emotion are remarkably similar; indeed, the link between musical mode and emotional mood has been the subject of philosophical inquiry and censorious dogma for centuries. Certain modes of music were to be kept out of Plato's ideal State because they evoked sorrowful or ungraceful or indolent feelings (Socrates: "When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them"). Saint Augustine feared the power of music to overwhelm the spiritual message of the hymns it accompanied, and this fear led the Church to pronounce certain musical modes -- and even certain melodic intervals -- dissonant and unlawful. Soviet censors, too, were notorious: they tried, for example, to keep Shostakovich's lugubrious dissonances (and their political overtones) in check.

The musical mode considered least dissonant (and thus most standard) in our Western tradition is the major mode, which is often equated with positive emotions, such as happiness, triumph, and love. The scale upon which the mode is based -- do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do -- is a sequence of intervals (tones and semitones) that sounds very natural to Western ears as it moves familiarly up and down toward resolution on do. Stop in mid-scale, though -- say, at fa or la -- and you feel the need to continue. What's happening is that the musical intervals do-fa and do-la represent suspended motion; they demand resolution without supplying it. Resolve this tension in the expected manner, and the result is a confident and happy feeling of coming home.

Take a simple melody we all know -- "The Star-Spangled Banner." The mode is major, and the opening can be expressed as follows:

Oh -- oh say can you see


It's a jolly little ditty: unambiguous and unsurprising. Notice that mi is most important to the melody's movement; it seems naturally to pull the melody along. That natural movement translates into the melody's positive emotional meaning.

Even the slight departure from the natural movement of a major scale caused by raising or lowering one of its notes a semitone (making the note sharp or flat) brings about a significant change in mood. Flat mi in the combination (do, mi, sol), for example, and the mode is suddenly minor rather than major -- a change that suggests the expression of negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, and melancholy. (Not surprisingly, in jazz and blues mi-flat -- more commonly known as a "flattedthird" -- is often referred to as a "blue" note.) The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" is a good example. The song asks, "All the lonely people, where do they all come from?" and uses the minor mode to heighten the question's resonance. Part of the melody goes like this:

(fa) (fa) (sol) (mi-flat) (do)

El -- ean -- or Rig -- by


Central to this tune's motive power is mi, which, once again, seems to pull the melody along. But in this case mi is flatted -- "depressed," one might say -- and thus disappoints our expectations. That sense of disappointment and tension creates the melody's emotionally negative resonances.

This shift from mi to mi-flat is one of the more obvious demonstrations of the emotional valence of musical intervals. One might even say that combinations of notes played together take on, in our minds, a metaphorical function -- simplistically speaking, for example, do-mi becomes happiness and do-mi-flat becomes sadness. As Leonard Bernstein puts it, "That's the unique miracle of music: that it enables us to perceive This and That simultaneously; there can be no stronger or richer presentation of metaphor." And the fact is that we respond instinctively to metaphor and make predictable emotional inferences from it. Movie music, elevator music, and advertising jingles all depend absolutely on this process.

Computer IF music is a metaphorical language, then conceivably it is possible to unpack the meaning of the various intervals, or metaphors, that have such power. It is precisely this curious task that the music critic Deryck Cooke, in his largely ignored , has attempted. Cooke takes as his starting point the notes normally played by Western instruments (think of the white and black notes on a piano, or a chromatic scale) and then distills an emotional lexicon from all the possible combinations of notes. The happy do-mi discussed above, for example, contains elements of "concord" and "joy,"while the sad do-mi-flat builds "stoic acceptance" and "tragedy" into much the same sense of concord. Cooke's lexicon describes a variety of emotional modulations, brash and subtle, and the emphasis is on the relationship between mode and mood:an octave (do-do), for example, is "emotionally neutral," do-fa-sharp is "devilish and inimical," and do-la-flat is "active anguish in a context of flux" (making it, one might suppose, the interval of choice for the new national anthems of emerging Eastern European democracies).

Cooke's musical dictionary is not intended to be definitive, but it is a useful construct. With it in mind, let's return now to the music played by my office.

The musical root, or tonic, of my office is established by the persistent and low-pitched hum of the heater. (I have caught myself at work humming a number of random and unrelated songs, but, significantly, have found that I hum every single one in the key established by the office heater.)

If my office heater provides the tonic, the chord my office plays is the following:

(do) (mi) (fa-sharp)

heater computer dial tone


Look up the meaning of the different intervals in Cooke's lexicon and you'll see that my office plays a curious combination of intervals, one joyous and stable (do-mi), another devilish and inimical (do-fa-sharp), and the third (mi-fa-sharp) emotionally neutral. The overall result is an ambiguous chord that, at its upper end, begs for resolution. Could this ambiguity and tension be one reason I so often feel on edge? Is it accidental that the interval created on the telephone between the dial tone and the sound of ringing at the other end is the consonant do-mi? Or that the interval between the dial tone and a busy signal is a dissonant do-fa-sharp? Cooke, as we saw, calls the do-fa-sharp inimical. Bernstein goes even further, calling it

the most unstable interval there is -- the absolute negation of tonality. And it is this interval ... that the early Church fathers declared ... unacceptable and illegal, calling it diabolus in musica (the devil in music).


The devil in the telephone. That's certainly a novel way of thinking about a daily aggravation. But in a way it is just stating the obvious. The busy signal is an unsettling negation of tonality. We know that, and that's why we hang up irritated. We all know the language of music very well, and respond to it instinctively.

toby3 picture If I'm plagued by the diabolus in musica during the day, what am I to make of the fact that I wake every morning to the interval do-re-flat -- "spiritless anguish, context of finality" -- created by my refrigerator and alarm clock?

PEOPLE have been making music for a long time, but machines haven't. Ours are the first few generations whose entire existence, waking and sleeping, is often accompanied by secondhand music. We have inherited an understanding of music as metaphor, and now we are being subjected to what might be considered subliminal messages -- oblique emotional statements delivered by the appliances that fill our modern lives. Background noise is not just background noise. Secondhand music enters our minds, speaking a language that we understand, even if we don't consciously listen. That language can make us happy and content, or can occasion solemn brooding. Most likely, though, we'll be left somewhere in between, mildly unsettled by the ambiguous intervals in our lives.

If there's a lesson in all of this, it's that you should listen to what you hear -- and, if necessary, go out and get a new refrigerator.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1997; Secondhand Music; Volume 279, No. 4; pages 42 - 47.