It only takes four notes: Shine on you crazy diamond

It’s said that the most important parts of any piece of music are the start and the end: those are the sections that listeners will remember the most, how a piece opened and the last part they heard.

The beginning of a piece of music is, like the beginning of a television theme tune, important; it needs to engage the listener and keep them interested enough to continue listening to what will come next as the piece unfolds.

Music does this in different ways: the gentle undulating strings at the start of Handel’s Zadok the Priest lull the listener into a trap, giving little clue as to the shattering choral entry that follows soon after; the nervous string ostinato at the start of Walton’s First Symphony after the rising dawn of the horns;

the titanic, rising shape at the start of Also sprach Zarasthustra;

or the heraldic fanfare at the start of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. There’s the rise and fall of the melodic line in Eleanor Rigby, the spiky introduction to Superstition by Stevie Wonder.

For me, a great introduction, or melody in particular, is one that only has to unfurl by just a few notes, and you recognise it immediately. A lot of today’s pop and rock music begins in such a fashion as to sound immediately like all the other pieces bouncing around the charts at the same time.

There’s something deeply resonant about that guitar riff in the opening to Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond that means it can be no other piece; you only have to hear those first four questing guitar notes, hanging in the air, to know at once what the piece is. There’s a lengthy introduction, underpinned by a pedal chord of G minor, with a meandering improvised melody shared between keyboard and guitar, creating a sense of expectancy. And then the guitar plucks a four-note riff which hangs in the void…

The shape of the phrase is a significant factor not only in its memorability, but also in what it does – or rather, doesn’t do. The first two notes, Bb – F, describe an open fifth, suggesting the key of Bb – this is instantly negated by the third note, G, such that the phrase has described an arching minor seventh – G – Bb – F, and the ear expects the next note to be the missing dominat degree of the scale, D. But this doesn’t happen – instead, the phrase moves over the missing note and articulates instead an E natural. Coupled with the preceding G, it suggests now C major, the subdominant harmony of G; those four notes have suggested three separate keys – Bb, G minor, C major – in the space of four steps.

By the end of the phrase, the listener’s tonal ear is confused: what key am I in ?
Is it the major, the relative minor, or the subdominant ? To have articulated all these keys and created such harmonic uncertainty with only four notes is a truly brilliant trick.

You only have to hear those four notes, in any context, on any instrument, to know the piece they come from. Genius.


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