Skip to content

Top 40 Philosophy: Pentatonix, “Mary, Did You Know?”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

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.

Billboard’s Holiday 100 is currently topped by Pentatonix’s cover of “Mary, Did You Know?” (The song is also at #60 on the Hot 100.)

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?

A: Philosophy of MusicPhilosophy of Human Nature.

Continue your investigation at:


  1. Gene Chase
    Gene Chase

    Wha? The heart beating in my breast as the seat of my emotions is a culturally specific reference. Other cultures refer to the liver or even the throat.

    (See: Applied Cultural Linguistics, p. 46)

    December 8, 2014
  2. Hey look! Someone’s actually reading these things. 🙂

    I’d like to add: “And if you’re Harry Potter, your emotions are in your stomach.” I’m going to write a post about that, eventually. (I’ve always loved the KJV’s “bowels of mercies.”)

    In fact, the emotions are going to be all over the place if James and Lange are right. But I prefer not to let facts get in the way of my neat little theories.

    December 8, 2014
  3. It’s funny you mentioned the idea that minor keys are dark, and major keys are bright …. Back in the dinosaur days, before Wil knew any better, he said he thought minor songs (such as Israeli) were “happy” compared to major. When he started playing contemporary church music, however he found out minor-key songs were actually “sad,” after all. There were “rules” against having too many minor-key songs in one service. He was quite perplexed.

    December 8, 2014
  4. Ezra Tillman
    Ezra Tillman

    I was just about to quote the “bowels of mercy” to you.

    December 8, 2014
  5. Patty: That’s another topic I need to write a post about. In a lot of cultures, minor key songs are used for celebrations. But I think that’s because minor keys sound serious and determined, and celebration is taken much more seriously in those cultures. (We Westerners usually associate seriousness with sadness, and associate celebrations with frivolity.)

    December 8, 2014
  6. Ezra: Thanks! Just goes to show you how easily emotions and desires mix together.

    December 8, 2014
  7. […] a particular kind of body. This relates to the important James-Lange theory of emotion, which we have discussed briefly before. It’s also similar the Harry Potter theory of emotion. (People in Harry Potter […]

    July 20, 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *