When is an apple not an apple? (Or, What do you want it to be?)

We all know the old joke about the accountant who .. yeah that one.

When is a perfect fifth not a perfect fifth?

When is an apple not an apple?


No, ”

why would I ask that question?


There’s a simple “rule” in basic 18th Century “Western Music” music theory (part-writing, counterpoint) rules (about which we all should know): don’t write parallel fifths.

As in all great rules, they’re meant to be broken. WHEN YOU’RE GREAT.

Only when you're great.
When you’re great you can do this.

I’ve been playing this piece1 (listen), dear to many pianists, for a couple of years now. It is set in the Most Remarkable Key. (Thank you, Richard Dowling.)

Bb Minor.

Bb minor is the worst. Key. Ever.

It is the darkest place imaginable to musicians. Here’s Why.

Bb minor’s companion is C# major. No, Db Major. No. C# Major.

Pianists know the repertoire that looks like C# Major. It’s brittle it’s so sharp (yes, let’s start at 432).. But what of the repertoire written in Db Major? Only the most tender, lush, rediculously beautiful. But, like chocolate, you just can’t stay there forever.

C#/Db can be so extreme because of the size of the major third – the most expressive interval of the triad. Think about it. What can convey the most emotion? Is it a lifeless “beeeeeeeeeeeeeep” – or something warm, with vibrato? Ok then, how much vibrato? Singers know how to answer this best. String players. Etc.

So – while this Db-F major third has a positive range of “brittle”, “sharp”, “lush”, “gorgeous” – that world is negative in Bb minor. Perhaps, the most negative of all keys – at least this guy thought so (THANK YOU, RITA).

B♭ minor
A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.2

Bb minor contains (according to this guy) one spiked fifth3, framing the third in a unique way, as codified by the man who unwittingly wrote the handbook for romantic classical music composition.

One spiked fifth!
One spiked fifth.

Bb sits in a very special harmonic place (science keeps getting better at this) and is – as a bass – one of the most healing sounds to sing. When you sing (or play) this note low, you cannot help but smile, if only inwardly – your entire body is flooded with endorphins.

Pianists experience Bb Major with sounds like this, this, this, and this. It’s very much the tone of the earth.

So when should a master violate one of the first rules of his craft? WHEN HE’S RIGHT.

Bolcom wasn’t writing parallel fifths. He was writing parallel fourths. The Bb IS the melody. Whether it’s above or below the F at this point doesn’t matter. No. 1 – the F is really caught somewhere between F and Eb (try singing it for a while, with all of your nightclub, sultry flair). You can’t approach it from above. You slide up to it, if you reach it at all. It’s like a Eb#almost#. It’s like lifting a suitcase that you know is more than 50 pounds and there’s no way the lady behind the counter is gonna let you on without paying an extra $25. It’s going back down fast and so are you.

Only when you're great.
When you’re great you can do this.

Look at the way the number of voices is notated – everything down to the choice of stem direction. At the most obvious level, the number of voices goes from five (5) to four (IV). To where did the fifth voice (bass) go? Or, more importantly (or at least firstly), to where did the tenor go? The “tenor” is providing us with the functional harmonic foundation – tried and true, can’t-live-with-it-can’t-live-without-it, bass player’s bread-and-butter ii-V-I. It’s like Mom’s scalloped potatoes dripping with melted cheese and reddened just to the point of getting toasty. It’s what you expect when you come HOME. And “home”, in this case, is in the inner section of the inner section of Bb Minor – this is a (non-third) double suspension, hanging over the glorious key of Db Major – a lush oasis in Bb minor, from which you only get a sip. It’s hell.

So, back to the question “Where did the bass go”? Down. But it can’t go down, without an intense desire to sit on that Bb for one healing moment longer. And when it does, the atmosphere that is created is the same magical atmosphere that is created in barbershop texture – when the melody is given to the tenor, not the soprano. The ear hears this Bb soar above the others, and, if the acoustical space is right, to three Bb’s beyond its written place – this is the compound beauty of acoustics (flutists are particularly aware of this from creating triads in duets).

It would be like a unaffected relative attending a funeral and behaving the whole time like it was a garden party.4

This Bb sits in a Major chord (one of hope), but it’s not the Bb Major chord. That personality has no place in a piece written in Bb minor. It would be like a unaffected relative attending a funeral and behaving the whole time like it was a garden party. This Bb is written as the lowest note (but not the harmonic foundation) in a chord that is doubly unstable (a V7/V with an extra yearning 9-8 suspension [in the top voice of course]). So now it’s a triple-fake: it’s a unnerving reminder of our darkest original home key [Bb minor], set in an unstable major chord, even complete with the Bb-Db minor third to boot (how far do the inner jokes go?).

Perfect fifths are not perfect fifths when they are !P5 (perfect fourths).

The Bb, from where it sits in our imagination, creates a special effect with the written highest note. This “false” effect has had its own special name and place in harmony for hundreds of years.

It’s absolutely wonderful that Bolcom chose to break a foundational rule of counterpoint – once. Once, in a RAG no less. In a RAG that demonstrates throughout it every attention to every voice in the most masterful of German counterpoint rules.

Once – on the pitch that scientists are clamoring is the pitch of the birthplace of the universe. (Did he do this on purpose? Yes, he’s a musician. Intentionally on purpose? I hope so.)

Once – on the pitch that Beethoven yearned to hear one more time so much that he devoted the entire second movement of his last piano concerto to be one long suspension waiting to to collapse into it. (Thank you, Bernard Rose, for this ending).

As a pianist, when you get to this chord, you can’t help but stop for that extra moment. It’s so sweet that the melody has to leave leave the bass almost immediately, but the range of the melody stays the same for the next part of the inner section – it’s transferred to the tenor voice. (To go to the soprano would be jarring, and besides, that’s what the RETURN IS FOR). The effect is so lasting that when the doleful theme returns in the World’s Darkest Key, we’re subconsciously reminded that it is this intentional mistake that has lovingly paved the way for the descent back to comfortable sadness. It’s music, after all.

Sir William, you’ll never know the myriads of people that you’ve comforted with your music. Again, thank you.

just a guy on his quest to understand parallel fifths

  1. https://www.amazon.com/Bolcom-Complete-Rags-Piano-William/dp/B00000IMH2
  2. http://www.wmich.edu/mus-theo/courses/keys.html
  3. http://graphs.unequaltemperament.com/Bach-Lehman.graph
  4. http://chipmiller.me/blog/why-are-these-not-parallel-fifths

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