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homeI’ve had a few requests to go back in time, to my previous life. Why not?

Before I was a writer, I was a musician, including 15 years as a music professor. I conducted a college orchestra, composed and arranged music, and taught music history and music theory. Once in a while someone will ask if I miss it. I really don’t. I enjoyed it, then had enough.

There’s one exception: I never tired of thinking and talking about music, especially how it does what it does. I do miss that. It’s like magic, the fact that pitches arranged through time and bumping and grinding against each other can make me feel happy or sad, scared or triumphant. Except it’s not magic. I know how it works.

I’d ask my theory students to bring in CDs of music they liked, and we’d start each class by listening to that for a minute or two. I’d ask what was going on in the music, what was making the emotion happen. For the first few days of the year, the freshmen would point to the lyrics, every time. I weaned them off of that by week two. Lyrics are window dressing. Good lyrics can enhance the emotion, but they’re almost never the root of it. Take the saddest song you know, put polka music under the words, and watch what happens to the emotion. Elton John broke the mold on this technique when he takes these lyrics…

I’m getting bored being part of mankind
There’s not a lot to do no more
This race is a waste of time
People rushing everywhere, swarming ’round like flies
Think I’ll buy a .44
Give ’em all a surprise

Think I’m gonna kill myself

…and puts them over an upbeat honky-tonk piano.

But take a heartbreaking song, keep the music the same and change the lyrics to la la la… and most of the time it’ll still break your heart.

A lot of the emotion in music comes from the skillful use of dissonance and consonance, tension and release. But the best composers also know how to toy with one of our most deep-seated narratives — the quest for home.

It’s a quest that’s laced into every human culture. Think of Odysseus wandering the Mediterranean in search of Ithaca, the children of Israel in search of the land of milk and honey, even the idea of humanity working its way back to Eden.

Films that aren’t beating the dead horse of unrequited love often return to the story of the search for, or return to, or loss of, home. Think of Gone with the Wind, The Trip to Bountiful, Apollo 13, Cast Away, all three Toy Story films (especially 2), Planet of the Apes…. And the two films that elevated home-lust to a fine art –- The Wizard of Oz and E.T.

Music mines the same ground. Composers establish the idea of home, then take you away and tempt you with the promise of return, measure by measure, phrase by phrase, and over the course of a full composition.

Music has several ways to establish an emotional home. The tonic pitch (or keynote) is one of them, and the harmony (or chord) built on that note is another. If you’re in the key of F, then F is home. Sing with me:

Hap-py Birth-day to you
Hap-py Birth-day to you
Hap-py Birth-day dear Sally
Hap-py Birth-day to…

Aack. Unsettling, isn’t it? And not just because a word is missing. It’s unresolved because the missing last note is the tonic, the arrival. It’s home:


Two notes in the scale are most important: the tonic, which is home, and the dominant, which is a big neon arrow pointing to home. In “Amazing Grace,” the first two notes are dominant and tonic, respectively:

A-ma-(zing grace)…

See how the first pitch points to the second, and how the second feels like home, the center of the tonal universe? There’s a cool reason for that I won’t get into now. But you can feel it, can’t you? First there’s the promise of home, then the promise is fulfilled. That’s grace for you.

If I were playing “Amazing Grace” on the piano, I’d be playing chords, and most of the chords would be the tonic chord, built on that tonic pitch, and the dominant chord, built on the dominant pitch. If the key is F, the tonic chord is F-A-C, and the dominant chord is C-E-G. So now there are two ways to promise home, and two ways to be home: the melody and the harmony. And 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.

No surprise that Phillip Phillips’ song “Home” plays with the idea of home. In the second verse, for example (“Settle down, it’ll all be clear”), the melody floats up above the tonic while the harmony is on the tonic. But when the melody drops down to the tonic home (“trouble it might drag you DOWN”), the harmony moves away from home. It’s cat and mouse. Melody and harmony don’t both find home at the same time until a strong downbeat on…what word?

I’m gonna make this place your HOME.

Not a coincidence.

There’s a moment in Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun” that always makes me choke up. Yes, the lyrics are wonderful, but it’s the way he underpins them musically that closes the deal. This song is about home too, and being away from it, and coming back — perfect for this device. The part that always gets me is, “I’ll be seeing my dad, my brother and sisters, my gran and my mum.” Start around 1:25 and listen for about 20 seconds:

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The melody on “gran and my mum” is a straight walk home in the melody — Bb-A-G-F. He could have gone home in the harmony at the same time, and it looks for a while like he will. “My brother and sisters” is all dominant, pointing straight to home. If he’d gone home to the tonic harmony on “mum”, it would have sounded like this:

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But he didn’t do that…because that would suck. Instead, he did something nuanced and wonderful:

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It’s called a secondary dominant, a kind of momentary harmonic trap door into another key. You think he’s headed for home (F), which is of course the whole message of the song. The melody does head for home (Bb-A-G-F, “gran and my mum”), but the harmony under it sidesteps through A major to d minor. The result is an unfulfilled yearning for home. It also happens every time he says “me and your mum” and “make you feel safe in this world.”

It’s made even more effective because he stretches the measure by a beat each time he says “me and your mum.” Then, at 5:20-5:26, “your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles, your grandparents, cousins” is one long, beautiful, building phrase extension on the dominant, all pointing toward home (F), then resolving home in the melody but again, not in the harmony on “me and your mum (5:27-5:30) will be waiting for you in the sun.” And I cry.

Knowing why it works doesn’t diminish the impact a bit. It just adds a deep sense of wonder over what music can do.

I’ll throw one of these into the mix once in a while. I do miss 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.