The sound of music in my ears
An examination of the leitmotif and how Pink Floyd used it in their classic album, The Wall
With their long history of improvisation, occasional cosmic noise exploration and their emphasis on lyrical and theatrical content, Pink Floyd isn't a name that frequently comes up in academic discussions of music. And yet, it should.
Underneath all that psychedelic weirdness and wild experimentation lurks a solid understanding of music theory. Though not obvious to casual listeners, the band's grasp of music theory emerges for anyone who has studied Pink Floyd's music. (And by study, I mean cracking open a real book of music transcripts, not lying back in a pot haze for your 2000th spin of The Dark Side of the Moon.)
Even lacking an academic background in music, you can witness the band's prowess in the rigors of music theory in many ways, not the least of which is David Gilmour's occasional forays into fully harmonized guitar arrangements. Although these harmonized guitar parts are often downplayed and used as background coloring, careful listening will reveal surprisingly complex arrangements on Animals, The Wall and The Final Cut.
Listen closely, and you might be surprised at how often you hear chords in songsparticularly those penned by Roger Watersfollowing a structure familiar to those schooled in the minutiae of music theory. Listen to the natural build and release in the chord progressions of songs like "Mother" and "If."
There are other ways the band exercise their more scholarly musical know-how: shifts in time signature, changes in key, dabbling in complex jazz voicingall of which are uncommon in pop music.
However, on The Wall, there's also a less cerebral way their familiarity with the inner workings of music theory comes out: the use of a leitmotif, or a recurring musical theme. The Wall has its own leitmotif and it occurs with more frequency than even the better versed Floyd fan might at first realize. Once you hear it, you'll start picking it out everywhere.
The use of a leitmotif in music is an old tradition popularized by classical composers in the mid-19th century and carries on today in modern orchestral music, including movie soundtracks and Broadway musicals. There are many examples to choose from, but one of the most famous examples (and one apropos to The Wall's own leitmotif as you'll shortly discover) is the four-note introduction to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. (You know the one... da-da-da-DUMMMM!)
If you're at all familiar with this particular symphony, you'll know that the entire first movement is made up almost exclusively of repeated instances of this leitmotif. It's a brilliant use of the device.
So what does a symphony written nearly two hundred years ago have to do with music concerning the plight of a burned out rock star in the 1970s? Well, a lot, actually. And no, I'm not trying to imply that Beethoven routinely shaved his eyebrows and trashed his hotel room. I'm talking about similarities on a musical level. And in that way, Beethoven's symphony and The Wall have a lot in common.
It turns out that not only does Pink Floyd employ the use of a leitmotif in most of the songs on The Wall, but it too is comprised of four notes. And guess what the cool part is? You already know it. Even if you're only the most casual of Floyd fans, you know the notes already.
The leitmotif in question is the melody to their biggest hit song, "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2." The vocal melody of each line of the verses are comprised of the four-note leitmotif, that familiar 3-notes-up, 1-note-down melody that repeats itself throughout the verses.
Here, look at the notes on a musical staff and sing it to yourself. (And yes, you seasoned sight readers, the timing was intentionally simplified to make the reading easier.)
There it is, the leitmotif from The Wall, twice.
And believe it or not, that 3-up-1-down leitmotif is all over the album. Sometimes it's drawn out longer. Sometimes, the notes are transposed to a different key. Sometimes, it's buried under vocal harmonies or instrumentation. Sometimes, the notes are rearranged slightly. In one case, "Goodbye Blue Sky," it's carefully woven into the acoustic guitar arpeggios.
Some instances of the leitmotif in The Wall are more conspicuous than others, but once you start to study and listen to the music with this in mind, even the more obscure occurrences will start to announce themselves to your ears.
Put in your CD of The Wall and listen to the guitar parts under the guitar solo in "Hey You" or the similar guitar parts under the judge's ranting on "The Trial." You can literally sing the verses of "Another Brick in the Wall" to those guitar parts. Then give "Empty Spaces" a listen. The opening of the song as well as the vocal melody are nothing but the leitmotif just longer and very drawn out.
So now you're likely wondering where else this leitmotif shows up. Well, lucky you. I sat down and culled every occurrence of this musical theme from the songs on the album, using both careful listening and a full transcript of the album's music. Some of these will stand out and some of them will require repeated listening, but they are all there.
Where to find it
The following is a list of where the leitmotif appears throughout the The Wall. While some of the songs produced later in the album's production cycle lack the leitmotif (e.g., "Comfortably Numb," "Young Lust," "Nobody Home," etc.) you might be surprised at how often the theme really is there. I invite you to give the album a whirl and follow along to hear it for yourself.
• In the Flesh? At :36 the guitar chords play the leitmotif (D,E,F,E).
• The Thin Ice. At 1:45-1:52, where the solo starts, the guitar chords played are the same intervals but rearranged (E,D,F,D).
• Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1. The leitmotif occurs repeatedly in the vocal melody.
• Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2. The leitmotif occurs repeatedly in the vocal melody which is doubled by electric guitar.
• Goodbye Blue Sky. The leitmotif is worked into the acoustic part. It's hard to hear, but it's there, being plucked on the higher guitar strings. Try singing the "We don't need no education" melody over the opening acoustic guitar part. The guitar part at :48 incorporates the leitmotif in a more obvious manner.
• Empty Spaces. The leitmotif is everywhere, on the low guitar, the high guitar, the vocals. This song is largely comprised of those four notes, but it is drawn out much longer than in other cases. (Incidentally, the blast of distorted guitar at the opening of "What Shall We Do Now?" in the film also carries on with the leitmotif in the chord progression.)
• One of my Turns. The leitmotif is echoed in the line "I can fe-e-eel..." Also, note the 3-up-1-down fill the piano does at 2:49 before the guitar solo started.
• Don't Leave Me Now. Some of the vocals vaguely, especially "Don't say it's the end of the road," and "Running away..."
• Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3. The leitmotif occurs repeatedly in the vocal melody.
• Goodbye Cruel World. The vocals echo the leitmotif, especially the first line.
• Hey You. The leitmotif is played repeatedly by the background guitars at 2:00 where the guitar solo starts.
• Is There Anybody Out There?. At 1:25-1:32, listen to the bass notes in the acoustic part climb and fall, 3-up-1-down. Then at 1:45 with the oboe. Again, at 2:22 with the flute.
• Nobody Home. The leitmotif are only hinted at here, and it's possibly only coincidental. Parts of the piano sound like it might be starting to play it especially the bass note climbs like at :08 and :17, but they never quite pan out.
• Vera. The same story as with "Nobody Home," but several parts are worth a closer listen. The acoustic part at :28 (plucked 3-up and 1-down) and the acoustic fill at :43-:47; the echoing, chime synth part at :50-:58.
• Bring the Boys Back Home. At :33-:39, the vocals ("Don't leave the children on their own") has the same feel as the 4-note theme, only stretched out.
• The Show Must Go On. The line "The show must go on" at the end is harmonized around the 3-up-1-down feel.
• In The Flesh. (See "In The Flesh?" above.)
• Run Like Hell. The leitmotif is hidden in the chord progressions (D,E,F,E) at 1:05-1:24, 2:11-2:30, 2:44-3:03. It's hard to hear because the D is held for so long.
• Waiting For The Worms. The heavy guitar part at 2:34-2:40 uses the leitmotif, and again during the ending of the song.
• Stop. The quick little piano fill you hear at the end of each vocal line, at :05, :11, :18, :24, incorporates the leitmotif.
• The Trial. Listen for it in the heavy guitar part under the Judge's dialogue.
• Outside the Wall. Here's an interesting one. The line "All alone or in twos," has the same feel, but listen carefully to the accordion part at 1:01, 1:19 where the choir voices sing "mad bugger's wall." This is an exact inversion of the theme3-down-1-up this time. If you think this is a stretch, notice that the album cuts off after that inversion. Then put in disc one and listen for what the album starts with. Contrary to popular assumption, the album's not a perfect wraparound, as it starts with the very inversion it ended with. Waters comment ("Isn't this where we came in?") wraps around perfectly, but the music under it has literally back-tracked a bit so that the album opens and closes with the inversion of the theme, as if to emphasize it. And if the inversion of the theme is being emphasized, it must be asked why. Consider what "Outside the Wall" is supposed to representPink finally escaping the confines he builds up throughout the album. Inverting the theme associated with that state of confinement is a brilliant way to represent the inverse of that state musically.