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Talking to great musicians is my favorite thing about life.  It’s so fascinating to me to learn about how different people experience sound – our most universal sense.  How do other people read music, memorize symphonies, recall tunes, or write original music?

Why are some melodies more “sticky” than others?   If I said “Beethoven’s 5th Symphony” to you right now, would that famous opening phrase get stuck your head?   Why are we able to remember melodies and lyrics to our favorite songs, but not passages from our favorite books?  What is it about music that effects us and moves us so powerfully?

Over the summer I had a great conversation with two world-class musicians, who happen to be members of the “perfect pitch club”.  After sharing a few war stories about playing in symphonies, gigs we loved, and musicians we love, we got onto the topic of perfect pitch.  One of them said something that really hit me hard on my drive home yesterday.  His observation was this:  being able to identify a note means nothing, until you have another note to relate it to.  In other words, if I were to tell you to play a “C”, it wouldn’t mean anything until I told you to follow the “C” with an “Eb”.  Furthermore, it would mean something completely different to follow that “C” with an “E natural”, rather than an “Eb”. Once you have that second note, the first note is given meaning.

M5intro Mendelssohn

Here’s an example: at first glance, the first note in both of these excerpts would appear the same, right?  Same rhythm, same register, same instrument, and *almost* the same note (they are off by a half step).  It isn’t until you reach the SECOND note that you are able to determine whether you’re playing Mahler’s 5th Symphony (the first excerpt), or Mendelssohn’s Wedding March (the second excerpt)!  As much as I love Mahler, I don’t think I would want to march down the aisle to his 5th Symphony.

How important is the second note?  In the grand scheme of a melodic line, it’s really just one note, but I would bet that you would be able to tell a lot about a piece, and maybe even identify it, just by listening to the first two notes.

In Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, the first two notes played by the trumpet convey a sense of vastness, and grandiose majesty.   In Holst’s The Planets, you get a menacing low rumble of brass.  In Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, you get triumphant patriotism (in the main melody, not the opening string quartet).  The second note (not including the octave) of Debussy’s Clair De Lune brings a sense of calm tranquility.  And the unmistakeable melody of “Maria” from Bernstein’s West Side Story is the sound of pure longing.  This particular melody is great because the second note really leads it to a resolution — you know exactly where it’s going after the first two notes (Ma–reee–aaaa).

Now that I’ve (hopefully) managed to get one of these melodies stuck in your head, I’m off to listen to The Planets!

This message has been brought to you by the number 2!