In her excellent new song, “I Like That,” multi-talented singer and former android Janelle Monae refers to herself as
the random minor note you hear in major songs.
A commentator on Genius interpreted this as a reference to her “minor” role as a background singer on “major” songs like “We Are Young” by fun. While clever and superficially probable, this interpretation doesn’t sit well against the song’s mood of self-celebration.
At a deeper level, this is a reference that would immediately stick out to any serious musician or songwriter. A minor note in a major song is a bit of unexpected dissonance that can often add interest and depth to what might otherwise be an emptily cheery or superficial experience. It’s a great metaphor for the singer’s embrace of an identity outside the norm, her willingness to be the person that never quite fits in, the note in a different key.
And yet there’s yet another, deeper level of resonance to this reference, a story behind it that even Janelle might not know. It begins in 18th century Europe, when the development of the modern piano caused a deep but subtle shift in the way the Western world experiences music. Prior to that point, musical instruments typically sounded good in one key, and only one key. A C instrument would be oriented around the note “C” and the other notes would be arranged in relationship to that, following natural resonances (which in turn follow mathematical relationships between sound frequencies). If you tried to play a “C” instrument in “D” it just wouldn’t sound right.
To get around this, instrument makers came up with different ways of tweaking the natural scale to result in an instrument that sounded fine in all keys. This is called “tempering” and one of the most famous tempering schemes, “well-tempering” was the inspiration for Bach’s famous “Well-Tempered Clavier” suite.
But it was another scheme, equal tempering, that won out. Perfected (like most things) three centuries earlier in China, it didn’t really become big until it was used to design the modern pianoforte, with a wholly artificial scale that sounds almost but not exactly like the natural scale, with the advantage that every key played on it sounds identical. You can transpose a “C” song to “G#” and it sounds just exactly the same, mutatis mutandis. And with the increasing influence of the piano, all other instruments were adjusted to match, with the result that the equal interval scale is now how those of us in the modern West hear music and expect it to sound.
And yet, and yet…
Is there something deep within us that knows the difference? That reacts to those equal intervals with just a hint of unease, a suppressed sense of something wrong?