Lesson #403: Shepard Tones

I finally got around to watching Dunkirk today. It’s stressful. But it’s beautifully made, and there was a variation on Elgar’s ‘Nimrod‘.* Which mostly drove me crazy by pretending to be Nimrod, very slowly, for a bar or two, without ever becoming Nimrod. In looking it up later, I learned that it wasn’t actually Nimrod, which mostly exonerated it.**

Anyway, one of the way that your blood pressure gets ratcheted up in this film is the Shepard tone. Identified by cognitive scientist Roger Shepard, the Shepard tone is an auditory illusion that gives the listener the sense of a perpetually rising tone without ever actually rising. Using overlapping tones, as the scale rises the top end fades out and allows the bottom tone to pick back up very quietly as the other pitches continue to rise. It’s sort of like a round of, say, Frere Jacques, where after you’ve finished the line “ding dang dong”, you pick back up at the top of the round with “Frere Jacques” while your friend moves into the “ding dang dong” line. While this is happening, you’re quieter in the initial “Frere Jacques” and the ultimate “ding dang dong” lines, and louder in the middle “dormez-vous” and “sonnez les matines” lines. The Shepard tone is a more uniform and linear version of this idea that tricks your brain into thinking it’s continually climbing. The effect of that is a sense of mounting tension, and Dunkirk‘s composer, Hans Zimmer, uses this masterfully. You can hear it (and the snippets of Elgar) in this piece.

To hear what a Shepard tone sounds like in isolation, listen here.

For more on the theory of the Shepard tone from some BBC scientist types, see here.


*We’ve previously discussed this very piece of music.

**It is, however, a brilliant choice of music for people familiar with the wave of Elgar’s (posthumous — he died in 1934) popularity in England at the time.


Lesson #394: Wagner’s Most Used Works

If you were wondering, and I’m sure you were, of 961 listed credits, by far the two most used pieces of Wagner’s work in television and film are the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin (Here Comes the Bride, you philistines), and the Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre. Neither of these are particularly surprising. They are distantly followed by the prelude to Tristan und Isolde — which is a stunning piece of music — and the overture from Tannhäuserwhich is lovely, but doesn’t do much for me. And then eventually you get a smattering of the overture from Lohengrin and Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, which is, as previously noted, one of my favourite pieces of music ever ever. And then lagging behind you get your Flying Dutchman and your Mastersinger of Nuremburg and your Rienzi Overture (which I quite like even though it often strikes me as somewhat disjointed, especially for someone like Wagner) and more individualized pieces from the Ring Cycle and his other operas.

If you’d like to see the full list, you can find it here.

Lesson #194 Redux: The Teddy Bears’ Picnic

The summer after I started this blog, I came across a website that looked at the more disturbing second verses of common childhood verses and songs that we all know. Today, I learned the later verses to the Teddy Bears’ Picnic, and wow are they sinister.

The second verse is innocuous enough,

“Every Teddy Bear who’s been good is sure of a treat today. There’s lots of marvelous things to eat and wonderful games to play.”

But then it suddenly takes a really dark turn in the third (and final) verse:

“If you go down in the woods today, you’d better not go alone. It’s lovely down in the woods today, but better to stay at home.”


Nothing says childhood trauma like “your teddy bears sometimes come to life, get together in the woods for a picnic, and eat the children who follow them.”

Lesson #384: A Simple Key Change

One of my closest friends can’t hear tone or, at least, hears it very poorly. This is something that I don’t understand. At. All. My life is so intrinsically linked to music that I find it completely baffling when someone can’t tell the difference between a major and minor chord when she hears it.

Now, I don’t have the musical ear some people have. Like my brother, for example. My brother is a bit of a musical savant. He can hear a piece of music once and play it back for you note for note. My cousin in a major western Canadian city has likely forgotten more musical theory than I’ve ever known in the first place. A college friend who recently did a Fulbright scholarship in music on the other side of the world could go on for days about composition. But I know when a note is out of place if I hear it.*

When I play the piano,** I like to take pieces and alter them from a major to a minor key and vice versa, just because I like to hear what it sounds like.


It turns out that a guy in Ukraine and his daughter have taken some popular songs and done exactly that. And it’s really effing brilliant. Some are obviously better than others, musically speaking. No Doubt’s Don’t Speak should never ever ever ever (there aren’t enough evers to cover how deep this goes — just like cheering for Cristiano Ronaldo) be done in a major key. The dissonance I love in the minor key is nearly unbearable in a major key. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. But Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in a major key is sheer excellence! The Beatles’ Let It Be in a minor key is just brilliant! The Macarena in a minor key? SO. SO. GOOD!

I cannot encourage you (Dad, I’m talking to you specifically; you’ll absolutely love this) enough to go check out this guy’s YouTube channel because it’s been the best part of my week.

*One of the worst stage performances I’ve ever seen was a national touring company production of Miss Saigon in which the guy playing Chris (the male lead) was anywhere from marginally to horrifically flat for the entire thing. It was actually painful to sit through.

**A lot…I have one in my living room that I paid an absurdly small amount of money for — no joke, it was a significant amount under $100…the guy just REALLY wanted to get rid of it. It is admittedly in need of a new coat of varnish and the G below middle C sticks in the humidity, but apart from that, it does exactly what I want it to. It does need a tuning, but I’ll wait until the dry season is upon us before I do that.

Lesson #370: Hitler’s Record Collection

I absolutely love this kind of history. In part because I find the way things change hands over time fascinating. Like how a painting by one of the masters gets written off as a forgery and then spends 200 years in someone’s personal collection before being stuffed in an attic. Or how Hitler’s classical record collection wound up in Moscow. But I also find it interesting because I’m a firm believer that you can tell a lot about a person by what books they have, what’s on their iPods, what TV shows/movies they watch religiously, and what football club they cheer for.*

The story itself isn’t particularly exciting. After Hitler’s bunker was captured, a bunch of Russian Intelligence officers took it upon themselves to liberate some of Hitler’s possessions. For strategic sheep purposes or whatever.** Anyway, 60 years later, upon the officer’s death, his daughter came across the records in the attic (naturally).

What I find most interesting in this is the inclusion of the Russian greats like Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky (who wrote my favourite piece of music ever), Borodin, and Rachmaninov (who is responsible for a surprising piece of pop culture), as well as some recordings of other peoples’ work by prominent Jewish artists like Huberman and Schnabel. In case you’ve all forgotten everything you learned in school, Nazism considered both the Jews and the Russians subhuman.

So it turns out that if you’re a brutal dictator spearheading a campaign to rid Europe of all the groups of people you don’t like, you don’t actually have to take your own orders. You can listen to Russians, Jews, and Russian Jews to your heart’s content. Because who is going to complain and to whom?

You can read more here, herehere, and here.

*I like things that are very, very dark. Which you probably should have picked up on by now if you’ve been reading for a while. But also, come to my house, take a look at my library, skim my iPod, and/or have me list off my favourite TV shows for you; you won’t be at all surprised by most of what you see and hear. Except for where Clueless is concerned. It’s the Zdeno Chara of my collection — the outlier that’s going to skew all the rest of the data.

**I love the internet. I literally just googled “strategic sheep” and it came back with exactly what I was looking for. Technology!

Lesson #366: The Long, Long Musical History of the Dies Irae

Last night, I came across this wonderful little video from the CBC. It’s a brief examination of the Dies Irae throughout the history of music. It’s delightful…and made me realize how little attention I pay to movie scores. The only one of the titles mentioned where I noticed it was The Lord of the Rings, which has a phenomenal score.*

*In fairness, I say this because I’m a fan of anything that so blatantly uses the leitmotif.

Lesson #364: Verdi’s Russian Opera

I’ve mentioned before that one of my friends is dating an opera singer. The professional company (not an actual opera company) she sings with had their spring concert tonight, and it just happened that the theme of the evening was opera. Lucky me! What I most enjoyed about it (apart from the fact that they did some stuff from Die Fledermaus, which, if you’ve been reading long enough, you’ll remember I saw in Budapest and absolutely loved) was that they had a musicologist on hand, who told stories about the music we were hearing. Which was good. Because…

They played the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, which I’d never heard before. And I was very confused. I have a pretty well-rounded classical music education, especially as regards the Russians, whom I adore. But generally speaking, I can usually tell by listening to a piece where it comes from because certain regions have certain specific traits. But this piece is truly baffling.

I must have been wearing that confusion on my face because my friend leaned over to me and asked, “are you okay? You look concerned.” “This is the most Russian sounding Italian music I’ve ever heard. I’m so confused!” Well, between the overture and the sung piece (Rataplan, which was by far my least favourite piece of the evening), the musicologist got to discussing the origins of the opera. It turns out there’s a reason why it sounds so Russian; it was commissioned by the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1861 and was first performed at the same in November of 1862.

Learning this made me feel a lot less like I was completely losing my mind, musically speaking.

If you listened to the link I posted and you have even a basic understanding of the Russians as composers, you’ll see why I was so confused by it. It’s Russian from the first note. Except that it was written by Verdi and set in Spain and Italy. So there are also parts of it that are more Italian than not, particularly in some of the string sections. But once the woodwinds and, especially, the horns get involved, it’s very definitely Russian. Honestly, it’s a bit all over the map.* But I didn’t hate it. It’s actually quite an interesting piece of music.**

*Pun intended.

**The consensus in what I’ve read in the books on opera I have in my own library and what the interwebs tell me is that this is considered Verdi’s best overture. I have no real opinion on that…I’m not huge on Verdi in the first place. Some of his stuff I like a lot (La Traviata, Nabucco, Dies Irae from his Requiem), some I’m meh on (Aida, Rigoletto).