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Just about every piece of music you’ve heard starts with a question: Where is home? A lot of the emotional power of the music, moment to moment and beginning to end, has to do with leaving home and finding our way back.

We’ve told this story for as long as we’ve told stories. It’s Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, and the Garden of Eden, the Hindu Muchukunda and the Welsh Gwion Bach. It’s Gone with the Wind, The Martian, Exodus, Battlestar Galactica, Gilligan’s Island, Gravity, Lost, Cast Away, all three Toy Stories (especially 2), Back to the Future, Planet of the Apes…and the films that elevated home-lust to a fine art: The Wizard of Oz and E.T.

                     The stages of Campbell’s monomyth

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell suggested that every myth and legend we’ve ever told is a variation on a basic story he calls the monomyth. The hero leaves home, crosses into the unknown (usually by besting a guardian), meets a mentor, faces challenges and temptations, is transformed, and returns home, usually bearing a gift, totem, or special knowledge. Shake well and you get Prometheus, Star Wars, the New Testament, Lord of the Rings, and a million more.

I don’t know about “every myth,” but I get it. This narrative is huge.

Music works the same way. Composers establish home in a few ways, including the key, then they take you away. Sometimes it’s just a few seconds at a time — pop in on the neighbors, then home again, then out to the folks on the other side, then home again, all in a single verse. Or the music might take you for a long drive, then come back to the neighborhood, only to pull into the wrong driveway. It can also take you away from home and never bring you back. You start the day in F major, get stranded in D, and by the end of the piece, you’re stuck in the suburbs of B minor, working for an insurance company and living for the weekend.

I hinted at this in the scales post:

This pattern [of pitches in the scale] creates a kind of aural map. The sequence of half and whole steps sticks a pin in one of the notes, calling it home, then creates a series of landmarks to tell you where you are relative to that home at all times. By listening to music all your life, your ear has learned how to follow that map — to go away from home, have adventures, and return (or not). The next three JET posts will get into that.

And here we are, getting into it.

Part of the complex texture of musical communication is that all of this home-and-away drama happens not just on the scale of the whole piece, but measure by measure, phrase by phrase. There’s even the ability to encode different home-and-away messages in melody and harmony at the same time–I’ll show you how that works in a bit. As usual, you don’t have to know how it’s done, or even that it’s happening at all, for it to work.

But knowing is nice, so let’s do that.

First, a little proof of concept:

If you sang the last note like a little cheater, consider yourself Mozart. When he was 4, Mozart’s father is said to have rousted Wolfgang out of bed each day by playing the first 7 notes of the scale on the harpsichord, do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti… The slappable little prodigy would leap out of bed, unable to bear the musical unresolvedness of it all, run into the parlor, and play the last note: do! 


True or not, the story rests on a true thing: the 7th note of the scale is fabulously unstable, known perfectly as the leading tone. It’s the last thing before you get back to the key note, which is “home” in music. You can feel home right next door. Not only that, it’s just a half step away from the tonic home. So the leading tone feels like it’s standing with its toes over the edge of a cliff, windmilling its arms, trying to keep from toppling forward onto the tonic. And not trying all that hard.

Dorothy’s final “can’t” (Why oh why caaaaaaan’t…) is on a leading tone.

But for all its cliff-edge windmilling, the leading tone isn’t where the real home-pointing power is. There’s another relationship that’s more important for deep emotional direction. It’s the tonic’s relationship to the 5th note of the scale, known as the dominant. The chord built on that pitch is a big neon arrow pointing home. If you’re in C, then C is the tonic and G is the dominant:

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Listen to those last three notes, 1-5-1. The first note is home. The second note moves away. The third feels like a return home, back to the center of the tonal universe.

But single pitches are just a shadow of the real juice–the harmony. Build triads on those pitches and you can really feel it. Triads are designated with Roman numerals, so the chords built on the pitches 1-5-1 are called I-V-I. Here’s what that sounds like:

Sounds simple to the point of boring, right? But it’s epic, one of the main reasons music works. That second triad isn’t just a generic “away” — you can feel a magnetic pull back to home.

Let’s put it in context, melody plus harmony, with three short phrases you know. I hold the V a bit in each one so you can feel it jonesing to get home:

That’s right — Dorothy’s “can’t” has a leading tone in the melody, and a dominant in the harmony. It’s yearning for home in both ways.

So why the special relationship between V and I? It’s the overtone series. Remember this?

overtonesIn the overtone series, the fifth note of the key is the strongest pitch you hear. That’s why the fifth is the most basic pitch relationship after the octave. The G is embedded in the sound of C. Sure the leading tone is just a half step away, but emotionally, the dominant pitch is the closest thing to home. So as Western music developed its grammar, that relationship of a fifth, tonic to dominant, became the emotional center — home, and the neon arrow pointing home.

Add the fact that the dominant chord has the leading tone in it, and you’ve got both a harmonic and a melodic magnet to home.


Composers can do wonders by promising home, then fulfilling, delaying, or denying that promise, or fulfilling it in the melody but denying it in the harmony, and on and on.

The Phillip Phillips song “Home” plays with the concept, and no surprise there. In the second verse, “Settle down, it’ll all be clear,” the harmony is on the tonic chord, but the melody floats up away from home, away from the tonic pitch:

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The next phrase (“trouble it might drag you down”) could have been boringly stuck at home on the tonic in melody and harmony:

Instead, when the melody drops down to the tonic on the word down (“trouble it might drag you DOWN”), the harmony moves away from home. It’s cat and mouse:

Hear the difference? All through that verse, melody and harmony don’t find home at the same time until a strong downbeat on…what word? Yeah:

I’m gonna make this place your HOME.

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Whether the composer was literally thinking of the lyric “home” and matching it with the tonic, who knows. But no decent songwriter stumbles accidentally on the home-and-away syntax of music. They know just what they want emotionally, and the home-and-away dynamic of Western harmony gives them the tools to achieve it.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.