Four Simple Notes Captured Listeners Across Centuries

Its name is esoteric, but the diatonic phrygian tetrachord is perhaps the most common sequence in music. WNYC's David Garland tells NPR's Arun Rath how those four notes crop up from baroque to rock.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The diatonic phrygian tetrachord - just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? Well, maybe you're not familiar with this expression. It's actually a sequence of four musical notes. But I can pretty much guarantee you've heard it played over and over again.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "PASSAGLIA FOR SOLO VIOLIN")

RATH: According to David Garland, host of WNYC's "Spinning On Air," these four notes represent perhaps the world's most common musical progression. It's a pattern that can be heard in music from Heinrich Biber to Michael Jackson, from The Supremes to The Turtles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY TOGETHER")

THE TURTLES: (Singing) Imagine me and you, I do. I think about you day and night. It's only right to think about the girl and you love and hold her tight. So happy together.

RATH: David Garland recently pulled together 50 examples of the sequence for "Spinning On Air" and joins us now to play a few. Hi, David.

DAVID GARLAND, BYLINE: Hi.

RATH: So let's start out by defining this diatonic phrygian tetrachord. Can you tell us - what are these four notes, their relationship to each other?

GARLAND: Well, it is a sequence of four notes that generally repeats back to the beginning again. And it probably goes way back to the Greeks. The term phrygian is one of the Greek modes. And the phrygian tetrachord is a portion of that full scale, just the four notes of it. And sometimes you'll hear it played quickly or slowly. I can play it for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIATONIC PHRYGIAN TETRACHORD)

GARLAND: So those four notes become the meat and substance of music after music throughout history.

RATH: And we heard some Heinrich Biber at the top. That's very old music. So that means that people have been turning to this for hundreds of years?

GARLAND: Yeah. I don't know exactly, and I don't think anyone knows exactly, when this sequence may have first been used. But the way that it shows up in so many different eras of music implies to me that it goes way, way back.

RATH: Let's hear some more examples. First, here's some Bob Dylan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MORE CUP OF COFFEE")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Your breath is sweet. Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky. Your back is straight. Your hair is smooth on the pillow where you lie.

RATH: Now here's the protest music of the Chilean band Quilapayun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PUEBLO UNIDO JAMAS SERA VENCIDO!")

QUILAPAYUN: (Singing in Spanish).

RATH: And here's the awesome instrumental band from the '60s, The Ventures.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK, DON'T RUN")

RATH: So this can go with your surfboard. It can go with protest music. It feels like it can go with just about anything.

GARLAND: I think so. It's an interestingly adaptable sequence of notes. It can be delicate. It can be intense. It can be fiery. It can be mournful. And I think the fact that it sort of - once you reach the end of those four notes, the beginning is again implied. You want to hear it repeat and repeat, and it becomes this kind of repeating wheel of motion, which I think is part of the reason it's so compelling, you know. And music repetition that has a kind of momentum to it is really energizing.

RATH: It seems kind of strange, though, that it sounds so natural. And a lot of pop music, a lot of rock music - and it worked all the way back to the early Baroque. Did it sound stranger back then, or has it just sounded, you know, groovy for the last 500 years?

GARLAND: (Laughing) I think we'd make a mistake in thinking that our ancient ancestors didn't groove in their way.

RATH: David Garland is the host of "Spinning On Air" from member station WNYC. David, thanks so much for joining us.

GARLAND: Thank you for having me.

RATH: And to give us some forward motion, propel us forward, let's go out on some Ray Charles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIT THE ROAD JACK")

MARGIE HENDRICKS: Hit the road Jack, and don't you come back no more, no more, no more, no more. Hit the road Jack, and don't you come back no more.

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