Pascal's wager
Reading Time: 4 minutes The Bible claims Moses parted the Red Sea to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
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Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
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Level 2
7 min

I want to write about the House of Cards theme, but first I have to talk about my obsession in middle school band. No, not the Hannah twins. I’m talking about a musical question that haunted me: Why is the melodic minor scale different going up and going down? 

I know: If I had the head space to be haunted by the melodic minor, I clearly hadn’t read enough Camus. But I eventually figured it out, so I could turn at last to the fundamental absurdity of human existence.

Here’s the A melodic minor scale:

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Hear it? The 6th and 7th notes (or degrees) in the scale are raised on the way up (F# and G#) and lowered again on the way down (F and G).

To understand why that is, notice that melodic minor has melodic right in the name. It’s the scale that dictates the form pitches take in a minor key when they are in sequence, one after the other, like a melody.

The message of the melodic minor scale is this: if your melody is going upward, raise the 6th and 7th notes. If not, don’t.

That still doesn’t explain why. For that, you need to know one thing: notes are lazy.

Suppose a note is not in the chord of the moment — this is called a nonharmonic tone, more on that later — and it’s between two pitches that are in the chord. Moving either way would resolve the tension of being nonharmonic. But if one of those pitches is a whole step away, and the other a half step, the note in the middle will tend to move to the closer pitch, like an electron jumping to the nearest valence.

Remember Dorothy last time, hanging on that leading tone, windmilling her arms before reaching toward the tonic home a half step away?

That’s the power of the leading tone, just a tantalizing half step away from the tonic. Minor keys want a piece of that magnetic action too. But the 7th note of a minor scale is a big boring whole step from the tonic.

Nothing compelling there, no irresistible attraction to the tonic, no windmilling arms. To add to its humiliation, when the 7th pitch is a whole step below the tonic, it isn’t even called a leading tone — it’s the “subtonic.” Sick burn. It’s bumping elbows with the tonic, but not leading toward it in any particular way.

So instead, when a melody in minor is going from the 7th pitch to the tonic, it borrows the leading tone from major, raising 7 a half step, making it a true leading tone to the tonic:

Instant attraction!

Okay, but why is the 6th note raised? Because when you bump the 7th note up, the distance from 6 to 7 becomes a step and a half, a.k.a. an augmented 2nd, which stands out against the half and whole steps, sounding like Aladdin just magic-carpeted into the room:

Can’t have that. A lot of Western tonal theory is about creating a unified musical texture so you can respond to the emotional language of the whole without individual elements suddenly drawing your attention like passing squirrels. The absence of bagpipes in the orchestra, the rule against parallel fifths, and avoiding augmented 2nds are just a few of the ways traditional Western theory keeps your attention on the big picture.

So to avoid the augmented second from that raised leading tone, let’s raise the 6th note. This also keeps it from wanting to fall back to the 5th note, the powerful dominant, when you’re ascending. If you keep it lowered, it’s only a half step away from that delicious dominant, and that’s allllll it wants (10 sec, turn it up a bit):

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You feel that?? We’re in B minor here, so the top note G is the 6th, unraised. And each time you hear that unraised G, you can feel the magnetic pull down to F#, the dominant (5), just a half step below.

That’s great if that’s where your melody is headed, like it is in the Batman theme. But to break the pull and go up, you raise the 6th and 7th. Imagine after a couple of times through that motif above, Elfman wanted a triumphant ending. It might have sounded like this:

That time I raised the 6th to G#, which continued up to A#, then home to B. The line was going up, so 6 and 7 are raised.

These adjustments also just make minor melodies flow better as the 6th and 7th lean in the direction they are headed. Carol of the Bells is a great example:

9 sec

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One note in Carol of the Bells gives me chills every time — a raised 6 as the tenors sing, “Oh how happy are their tones.” The word HOW is raised, then “happy are their tones” turns around and cascades over it:

5 sec

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That spot, that one note, is thrilling, unexpected. Now you know why — it’s the sudden brightness of the raised 6th degree.

I’ll finish with the best example of the melodic minor in its natural habitat, one that takes me back to middle school again — Jethro Tull’s Bourrée:

15 sec

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(I hear Bach did a remake of this, but I’m too much a fan of the original.)

Okay — now we can talk about House of Cards.

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...