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Years ago, when I taught music theory, I’d ask students to bring in recordings of music they loved. We’d play a minute of something, then talk for a few more minutes about what was going on there. Applied theory, always my favorite part of the class.

One day, a student in the class gave me one of the best musical gifts I’ve ever received. She introduced me to Radiohead.

The song was Paranoid Android, and I knew within the first minute that we wouldn’t do anything else that day. But this post isn’t about Paranoid Android. It’s about another Radiohead song, one that uses the ideas in the post about scales, the fact that octaves can be broken up an infinite number of ways, including exotic sequences of steps producing unique emotional palettes that are different from the major and minor we’re used to hearing. There are even microtonal pitches that would fall in the cracks of a piano keyboard if they were foolish enough to wander onto one. It’s the atmospheric masterpiece How To Disappear Completely.

Listen first (5:56):

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Damn.

There are a hundred things to talk about in there, like that cool, quiet walking bass that starts around 0:21, cutting across the guitar in a laid-back polyrhythm. But let’s look at what he’s doing with pitch, especially the scale and the use of microtones.

The song is in F# not-quite-minor. Six of the seven steps in the scale got the memo for F# minor — F#, A, B, C#, D, E — but the second note, which should be G#, is G-natural instead, just a half step above the key note. That’s one of the things that made the Byzantine scale sound exotic. But this time the scale is F# [tippy title=”Phrygian”]More about Phrygian later, when we get to modes.[/tippy], which has this nice dark quality. When he sings In a little while, I’ll be gone, listen to the note on I’ll. That’s the lowered second, that G-natural (excerpt 19 sec):

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He really leans into it later on as the whole chord, not just one note, is on G (excerpt 36 sec):

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You four-pepper theory types may notice that the bass is still on the same pitches under the G chord that it played under the VI-i progression in f#m earlier. That’s a basso ostinato (literally “obstinate bass”) — the bass sees no reason to change just because the chord above it has. The result is a gorgeous harmonic mix.

The microtonality happens mostly in the sliding mush of strings later on. I especially love the moment when he has you whirling in a microtonal cloud of strings, then suddenly POP — the cloud disperses and you’re back in the clear tonally (excerpt 24 sec):

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Just a stunning effect. But my favorite thing about this amazing song is one note — that high siren in the distance at the start. It’s a note to haunt your dreams. What the hell is up with that note? (excerpt 23 sec)

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It took me a long time to realize why that pitch sounded so otherworldly: It’s not even a pitch in the scale. It’s a microtone, a pitch in the crack between A and A#.

But even before I figured that out, it worked. And that distant, haunting siren is still a big part of what makes this astonishing piece work for me.

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Thom Yorke portrait by John LeMasney via Flickr | CC A-SA 2.0 Generic
Jonny Greenwood thumbnail by angela n. via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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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.