The Joy of Wrong Notes

broken-piano-keysThe element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out.

For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. Or listen to the Richard Rodgers song, In My Own Little Corner from the 1957 television musical, Cinderella. On the words, “own little chair” Rodgers veers unexpectedly to the “wrong” note and then quickly corrects it with the note we expected. The bridge section of the song moves even further afield before quickly and skillfully sliding back into the chorus. “Oh yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be.” The familiar chorus suddenly feels fresh and new because of where we’ve been in the bridge.

The examples above are relatively subtle. But once in a while the “wrong” notes begin to really step out of line and take over the piece. Here are eight pieces where “wrong” notes move beyond subtle into the realm of shocking:

Haydn: The Creation

Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, completed in 1798, is based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The opening Overture is a musical depiction of chaos. It’s filled with harsh dissonances and cadences which avoid a clear resolution, elements which audiences at the time would have found particularly shocking. There’s a hint of the revolutionary fire of Beethoven, who was about to begin his first string quartets in 1797 as Haydn began working on The Creation. At moments the music is so chromatic that it feels as if we’ve stepped into some unwritten Wagner prelude:

Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet

Listen to the opening of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C major and you’ll understand why it earned the nickname “Dissonance.” Completed in 1785, the work was dedicated to Haydn.

Chopin’s “Wrong Note” Etude

Frederic Chopin’s Etude No. 25, No. 5 in E minor is known as the “Wrong Note” Etude because of its dissonant minor seconds.

Prokofiev: Cinderella

The music of Sergei Prokofiev is full of quirky “wrong” notes. This excerpt from the ballet score, Cinderella is one example:

Ives: Symphony No. 2

The final movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 is an exuberant collage of American folk songs, hymns, and Civil War military songs. You might also hear hints of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The end of the movement is like the grand finale of a brilliant fireworks display. Listen carefully. Something surprising happens on the final chord…

Shostakovich: Polka from “The Golden Age”

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age offered a satirical look at cultural and political currents in 1920s Europe. The Polka lands somewhere between humor and sarcasm:

Schnittke: Stille Nacht

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote this haunting version of Silent Night as a musical Christmas Card for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1978. Schnittke spent much of his life trapped behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His music often evokes an atmosphere of gloom as well as biting protest. Pastiche and historical references frequently make up the ironic fabric of Schnittke’s music.

Wrong Note Rag

We’ll finish with music which perfectly sums up the joy of “wrong” notes. Here is an excerpt from the original Broadway cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:

Share your own favorite “wrong note” pieces in the thread below.

Lexus’ Cheap Shot at Classical Music

A Lexus in the junkyardAdvertising is about illusion. It manipulates the most irrational recesses of our minds, circumventing thoughtfulness and judgment. Facts and reason are no match for advertising, which plays on emotion, desire and the ephemeral. Madison Avenue can cleverly make any product, person, or idea seem desirable or undesirable, and its reach extends into mainstream news and political campaigns. Are we citizens or brand consumers?

In a new Lexus ad, classical music becomes a symbol for everything which is old, stuffy, boring, and uncool. The ad doesn’t portray “real” classical music, but its image, or signifier. Interestingly, all of the music heard in the ad sounds like virtual orchestra technology. It’s digitally manipulated to sound annoyingly out of tune, whiny and grating. Both the “classical” music and the synthesized drums which conclude the commercial are sterile and soulless.

It’s possible to view the ad as a good natured spoof on the multitude of cliched car commercials which use classical music in an equally stereotypical way, appealing to an image of class, age, and affluence. But even taking satire into account, disturbingly divisive messages remain: “This music is boring and annoying.” “Classical music is for old people. Rock music is for young people.”

Of course, the term “classical music” itself can be viewed as an offensively arbitrary marketing label. When we say “classical,” we’re really talking about all enduring music. Bach, Bartok and The Beatles all fit that description.

Divisiveness is at the heart of corporate advertising. The indoctrination of children from an early age into mass consumerism has been well-documented. As standardized testing has pushed the arts to the periphery of the school day, corporate media has subtly told children what is “cool” and what isn’t. All of this is enough to make you wonder if corporate culture is subconsciously afraid of the arts. Perhaps the ultimate reality embodied in the arts is enough to shatter illusion and remind us that we’re more than brain dead consumers.

This clever remake was made in response to the original ad.

The Lexus ad uses the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. Here is the real thing, played by Murray Perahia. The serene opening of Mozart’s Andante (14:01) is deceiving. It lulls us into complacency. But keep listening and you’ll hear a subtle turn towards something darker with the hint of melancholy around 14:45. Amazingly, we slip back into the atmosphere of the opening as if nothing happened, but the seed of that moment of dissonance has been planted and returns throughout the movement. Listen to all of the surprising turns Mozart’s music has in store for us:

  1. Allegro maestoso (0:00)
  2. Andante (14:01)
  3. Allegro vivace assai (21:00)