Bach, Gould, Interpol: Magnetic Tonality

Greetings to all! I recently received an email regarding Interpol’s music and the concept of tonality:

…Interpol’s music, to my ears, often seems not major or minor in key and borderline atonal. I think the song “Precipitate” is a good example of this.
I recently began studying Bach’s music and found a youtube video where Glenn Gould discusses Bach’s later works. He says (I’m paraphrasing from memory):
“Bach goes back 100 yrs, his compositions reach a degree of chromaticism not seen since the renaissance and he is now able to compose tonally but without the technicolor trappings of tonality.”
The technicolor trappings of tonality . . . hmm . . . somehow, I think Interpol also eludes these trappings, no??
I started thinking more generally about how music moves from a happy “major” sound to something “mournful” and minor. For example, in Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Vars. how measures 17-24 turn very sad somehow. Or, in Interpol’s music, how they achieve a “grey” sound. I’m wondering if there’s something about how the bass lines move, if they move chromatically, maybe. Or the interaction between the guitar melodies and vocal melody. It just does not seem like typical scalewise motion you hear on popular songs on the radio.

– I completely agree that Interpol’s music very often hovers in the borderlands between tonality and atonality. But first, a few words on what the concept of tonality entails:
To say that a piece of music is “tonal,” is to say that all of its notes (melodies, chords, bass lines) ultimately draw our ears to one specific chord, called the tonic chord. Thus, if I say a piece is in the “key of C major,” the implication is that all of the musical material is either based on the C major triad (C-E-G), or somehow pointing the listener back to that “home” triad, like a magnet. The strongest chord that pulls us most forcefully back to the tonic chord is called the dominant, built on the fifth scale degree (G-B-D), and the second strongest chord is called the subdominant, built on the fourth scale degree (F-A-C).

– The Bach piece mentioned by Fabrizio, while most definitely in the key of G major, does indeed “demagnetize” the G major triad a bit by using certain compositional techniques. The piece can be heard, as played by Glenn Gould, here. The moment when the music “turns very sad somehow” is ca. minute 1:27 to 2:07, and coincidentally is the halfway mark of the piece, where we move from the “A” section to the “B” section (speaking in musical form terms).

– Here, the music is shifting into E minor (and hence, turns “sad”)—but Bach does not make this clear at first, and it takes awhile for the ear to figure out what the new tonic is. At this moment, we are hovering between tonics, and, in the sense that our ears have been demagnetized, we have briefly entered an “atonal” state. In fact, we hover for about three full measures (1:27-1:42). How is this possible? By not giving us the strong dominant (which would definitively point us to E minor as the new tonic) until 1:42, Bach is avoiding the “technicolor trappings of tonality,” those techniques which shout “this is tonic!” (think of the ending of a Beethoven symphony, the blues and standard rock, etc.). Bach is manipulating the culturally accepted and inculcated musical norms by delaying the magnetizing of the new tonic, thereby complicating the listener’s reaction and making it more complex.

– Interpol does this as well. Without completely abandoning tonality, Interpol’s music complicates the normative harmonic progressions (often via complex interactions between Daniel’s guitar melodies and Carlos’ bass lines) and it is thus often very difficult to pinpoint exactly what key an Interpol song, or even section of a song, is in. I like Fabrizio’s mention of “Precipitate,” as this early song is proof positive to me that the desire to manipulate musical norms has always been a concern for the band.

Thanks for the question/observations, Fabrizio!

Up next, a look at an article in which Sam talks about some of his favorite songs.
Until then,

Much love from,


~ by megwilhoite on November 14, 2008.

2 Responses to “Bach, Gould, Interpol: Magnetic Tonality”

  1. hey, I forgot to keep checking back, but i’ve enjoyed reading back over all your posts. Keep it up.


  2. Thanks to both of you – Meg & Fabrizio – for this inspiring lesson !!

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