Saturday, September 06, 2008

Stuck in the middle with you

Pity the poor sixth.

Doing the washing up, I find my head filled with "Do-Re-Mi" from the Sound of Music. You know the one, the song that gives cutesy names and puns to all the notes of the diatonic scale. Except one.

"La - a note to follow So [sew]."

That's the sixth, what's technically known as the submediant, and Rodgers and Hammerstein hold it in such contempt that they can't even be bothered to think up a decent line. It's nothing special, La, it's just a stopping place on the way from the bright lights of So to the glittering wonders of Ti (a drink with jam and bread). Sort of like a motorway service station - you need the facilities, but you wouldn't choose to go there if you had any real choice in the matter.

Even the technical term's an insult - submediant, i.e. like the mediant, only not as good. Don't get any ideas above your station, Mr Sixth, we're only hanging round with you because we can't get close to the mediant for all the cool kids crowding him as he determines major and minor.

It doesn't get any better when you consider the unfortunate interval from a tonal perspective, either. In the tonal hierarchy, the submediant is the location of the relative minor key. Now, you may think the minor mode's proved its popularity over the years, but consider this: When you're in a major key, you modulate to the dominant. The exciting, virile, even more major dominant. Never to the relative minor. Yet when you begin in a minor key, the accepted path is to get away as quickly as possible to the relative major (which is located in the prime territory of the mediant. Yes, the Mr Big Shot mediant, so much more U than the boring old submediant. Who'd want to go there, eh? It's the tonal equivalent of Wolverhampton.

Not everyone hates the submediant - Brahms loved nothing better than to pile the sixths on, and there's a wonderful bit in the finale of Beethoven's Choral Symphony, when a massive dominant chord is emptied of its harmony, and then the single note left behind is reinterpreted in a new context, which swings the tonality unexpectedly towards the submediant key. It's an awe-inspiring moment, although Beethoven ruins it by prancing off on a thoroughly silly march, so maybe he didn't like our middling friend so much after all.

Well, I say it's time to stick up for the little guy. What's so bloody great about all these so-called perfect intervals, anyway? Let's hear it for the submediant - the tone that's not afraid to be different.

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