Possibly one of the most common illnesses of all time, it has affected everyone. Its epidemic spreads like wildfire, and once you catch it, it is almost impossible to get rid of. There’s no way to protect yourself—you’re as good as defenseless. But don’t worry; it’s not the black plague or a new breed of swine flu. It’s just a catchy tune.
I suppose TV commercial jingles or the songs that invade us over the radio, television, internet, and other media sources are the most common pieces of music that our brains latch onto. But for those of us who spend time listening to classical, hasn’t everyone gotten a passage stuck in their head? Whether it’s a rhythm, solo, or theme, hardly an hour goes by where I’m not snapping, whistling, or tapping my fingers. This phenomenon is such a daily occurrence, not many of us stop and think about exactly why these specific passages occupy our trains of thought. Perhaps it’s just because they sound the “prettiest” compared to the rest of the piece, or maybe it’s the line in the work that protrudes the most. There are many melodic lines that we listen to that certainly are “pretty,” but there are millions of note progressions that rarely, if never, become stuck in our heads. When we can only rely on instruments and not on clever lyrics or cartoon images associated with melodies, we have to dig a little deeper.
Tchaikovsky is arguably one of the masters of themes. His “Romeo and Juliet Overture” Love Theme is frequently (very, very frequently) used as a blurb of classical music in pop culture. If one were to go up to someone living under a rock, chances are they would have heard this theme. Despite its overuse in everyday life, the passage is heart-wrenching and beautiful. But why did this specific melody become stuck in so many people’s heads that it has been used to the extent it has? The answer, in my opinion, lies in one note—a G sharp (the theme is transposed many times; this specific example is just one of them). We’ve all heard this note countless numbers of times, but in the context of the love theme it is what creates the inescapable catchiness.
|In the cave (R&J)|
The theme centers around the A major scale; it simply makes a melody out of the notes and outlines chords. Yes, G sharp is in the A major scale, but the act of starting the Love Theme on the note right before the root of the chords is what has caught the ears of millions. If one were to remove the G sharp at the beginning, the theme would still certainly be beautiful—but it would also remove the slight suspense that causes the listener (if truly listened to) to lean forward and close their eyes before the triumphant A is sounded, along with the cymbals. It leaves one hanging by a thread for just a little while, enough to convince the listener of the immense emotions piled onto the phrase. Without that one G sharp, the seemingly meager note in comparison with the entire overture, the Love Theme we have all come to know like a brother would lose a large amount of its effect.
|Wagner + Elmer|
If we take another theme—the one from Richard Wagner’s “Walkürenritt or Ritt der Walküren” (Ride of the Valkyries) from his opera Die Walküre—, we can dig beneath its storm-like trombones and sweeping string undulations and find the source of its catchiness. Besides “Kill da wabbit, kill da wabit…,” how did this theme find its way into pop culture? Yes, it of course has to do with Wagner’s genius and the overall timbres in the piece, but looking at the theme itself I suspect the smartly-placed intervals are what subconsciously pull us in. The theme begins with a perfect fourth; this interval is, on its own, tonally pleasing and a favorite of the early, conservative composers. Of course, in the Wagnerian context, it sounds ominous, but when stripped down the interval is thought of as pleasant. However, this fourth is followed by three groups of minor thirds, an interval often associated (in its pure form) with sadness and malaise. The juxtaposition of these two intervals play off each other perfectly; the classic-ness of the fourth with the tang of the minor third is unexpected, yet they balance each other perfectly. Even though these two intervals fit in with the violent emotions of the “Ride,” if looked at immaculately, the themes catchiness can (to some degree) be diagnosed.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely not saying all themes’ catchiness can only be credited by their relation to theory—without Tchaikovsky’s gift of natural melody and heart-wrenching sound qualities, his Love Theme from the “Romeo and Juliet Overture” would be significantly duller. Without Wagner’s stormy string sweeps and quiet yet effective timbres, his “Ride of the Valkyries” theme would be just another military-sounding passage. But, next time you find yourself whistling one of your favorite melodies, take a moment to think—was it the "wabbit," that stuck it in your head, or something more methodical?