We spent the first week of Advent on the Beatles, which is not exactly appropriate. But it was the 50th Anniversary of Beatlemania, and we couldn’t miss the chance. Now that we’ve done our duty to the Fab Four, though, let’s do Christmas music this week.
Those lyrics — written by Mark “The Christian Weird Al” Lowry (back in 1984) — are shockingly Christian. Drop the question format, and you could use them as a creed on Sunday. But the song has always creeped me out, musically.
It’s like Pharrell’s “Happy“; the harmonic and melodic space it lives in is just so dark. But, then again, I’ve already said something similar about the lyrical world of “A Hard Day’s Night,” and my favorite Christmas song is “Carol of the Bells,” which is melodically and harmonically dark as well.
An Experiment to Try Right Now!
We apply terms like “dark” and “bright” to music all the time, without thinking much about how metaphorical they must be. I have no idea how we came to experience minor keys as “dark,” and major keys as “bright.” But I do know how we came to experience some notes as “low,” and others as “high.”
Try an experiment for me. Hum the opening bass/guitar riff of “My Sherona,” by the Knack. (It goes, “low-low high-high, low high,” etc.) Or hum the opening guitar/bass riff of “Bulls on Parade,” by Rage Against The Machine. (It goes, “high-low, high high-low, high high-low,” etc.) Or try the opening synth riff of “Monosynth,” by Joy Electric. (It goes, “low, high, low, high,” etc.).
When you’ve torn yourself away from the song, think about where in your body those notes were. You could feel a “buzz” or “resonating” somewhere in your body when you hummed each note. Where did you feel the low one resonating? And where did you feel the high one resonating?
Now, try sliding up slowly from one note to the other, and then sliding back down slowly. You can feel the note move up from your chest and into your head, as you raise the pitch, and then drop out of your head and return to your chest as you lower the pitch.
Places in the Body
Why are high notes high, and low notes low? It’s because we find them in different places in our body. Low notes are lower in our bodies (they are in our chests), and high notes are higher in our bodies (they are in our heads).
The same can be said, I think, about reason, emotion, and desire. We think (“reason”) with our heads. We feel (“emote”) with our hearts. We hunger (“desire”) with our stomachs. Reason, therefore, is higher in our bodies than emotion, and emotion is higher in our bodies than desire. I suspect this is the origin of the universal belief in classical philosophy that reason is higher (more important than, in charge of) the emotions, and that the emotions are higher than (more important than, in charge of) the desires.
However, we could say emotion is “central,” because we find it in our bodies between thoughts and hunger. And similarly, we could say that desire is “fundamental,” since we find it lowest in our bodies of the three. I’m sure you can think of people who prefer to think in these terms.
In any event, the true location of notes is not culturally relative (pace Daniel Levitin). It depends on the human body — the same human body we all have. And the location of emotions in the body is also something deeply important, as William James argued long ago.
The Hidden Track
Q: What kind of philosophy were we doing today?
Continue your investigation at:
- The links above.
- “The Mind-Bending Effects of Feeling Two Hearts,” by David Robson (BBC Future)