Between the Keys

I grew up thinking that music was made with a particular set of twelve notes, the ones on the piano keyboard. I had a vague sense that there were other scales in the world, but I thought of them as “more primitive” or perhaps subsets of the 12-tone scale, like that pseudo-Asian music you make if you play around on the black keys of the piano. I certainly didn’t know that those 12 notes, now so unconsciously established that hardly anyone in Western culture even questions them, are a relatively recent invention. In Europe, where they first caught on, they were fought bitterly for a century or so before they became the norm. Even now, much of the world still does not tune to these notes, although they are still spreading.

But I also grew up deeply aware of blues singers, and that notes sung “blue” could not be duplicated on the piano, or on the guitar without bending strings. Something was always different about rock, country and other blues-influenced music. All my favorite music had this quality in common — somehow richer in sound, with more heart, and it wasn’t just feel. And it wasn’t just blues either — almost all vocal harmony had “it” too, regardless of genre.

When I was a teenager, I heard a tiny phrase that hit me like Sirius falling from the sky in the Truman Show. Here it is, fair use excerpt:

The Note

Hear it there, at the end? In the right channel, George Harrison plays something you absolutely cannot play on a piano, yet it is perfectly in tune. There is a wealth of information in that little phrase — it points to a whole world living there, in between the keys. That lick has stuck with me for all these years, a sign in the sky, that there was a lot more to know about music than I had been taught in textbooks.

Next: The Chord of Nature

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