The Magic of the Octave

Piano Keys by flickr user sp3ccyladAh, the octave. The foundation upon which rests over 1,000 years of polyphonic music. The incredibly simple yet amazingly powerful concept that every note on the scale has a twin 8 notes away in either direction. Middle C, High C, Low C - they're all different notes, but in a fundamental way, they're all the same note. That might sound obvious, but to our ears, it's a revelation.

What I find fascinating about the octave is that throughout the history of music, musicians have made use of it the same way writers use bold or italics: for emphasis. By jumping up (or down) an octave and repeating something that came before, the music suddenly has a heightened sense of urgency, power, and intensity. No need for a new melodic line, no need for new words... just go 8 notes up the scale and repeat. Suddenly your ears tell you "oh, it's serious this time."

I've compiled a little playlist of some of my favorite examples of the octave jump used for musical emphasis:

In the Arcade Fire track, octaves are present right from the beginning - the ascending melody on the piano is an octave above the one on the guitar. But what really gets me is how Win Butler starts the first couple lines in the lower register, then jumps up an octave at 0:54 for the last 2 lines of the first verse. He goes back down for 1 more line, then spends the rest of the song an octave up from where he started. The second verse just sounds so much more intense, even though it's essentially the same notes. That octave jump really makes a big difference.

The Soundgarden track isn't their best by any stretch, but it shows the benefits of having a huge vocal range like Chris Cornell's. It doesn't just come in handy for singing the National Anthem (yep, the jump from "say" to "see" in the first line is an octave), it also lets him jump up an octave not once (at 0:34, when he doubles the vocals an octave up) but twice (at 1:01, when he goes balls-out and shows us what those pipes of his can really do). The first time I heard this song, I had to play that part over and over again to believe that he was really singing that powerfully and that high. I love that guy.

Okkervil River is far less theatrical about it, but they understand the point of the octave as well as Soundgarden does. In the first 2 verses, Will Sheff jumps that octave after the first 4 lines, just as the piano and drums kick in. The point is taken: "pay attention now, this part's important!"

Kurt Cobain definitely knew how to wring intensity out of his voice. This Nirvana track is a great example of that, as he waits until the end to do a call-and-response thing with himself, going up the octave from where the chorus was before and ending the song on a powerful note.

And even my old buddy Brahms (and thousands of composers before him) got in on the action, jumping 2 octaves in the first 3 notes of the Allegro Con Brio movement of his 3d Symphony (if you've never heard the whole thing, check it out - it's fantastic). He builds a solid foundation of intensity right at the top that he can then fall from and come back to throughout the piece, to great effect.

What do you think? Are there any musical tricks you're particularly fond of? A favorite drum fill? The fade-out? Let me know in the comments.


dunoons said...

The gearshift!

Are you too ashamed of your crusty days to acknowledge Trey Anastasio's blissful gear shifts, used for emotional exploitation on EVERY GODDAMN phish song?

Alyn said...

Take a listen to the third movement of The Grand Canyon Suite which is called On The Trail. It depicts the donkey ride that takes tourists down into the Grand Canyon. Talk about jumping the octaves. It is just delightful. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1l5vgY_3tw
Go to around halfway thru the whole suite to hear On The Trail.