How 'Accidental' Notes Grab Our Attention

Dec 20, 2015
Originally published on December 20, 2015 10:50 pm

Sometime around the 11th century, Western composers began to make room on the page for a new kind of sound. These notes would fall outside the key of a piece of music — generally a half-step higher or a half-step lower. They could even sound like a mistake. And that's how accidentals were born.

The word "accidental" has all the elegance of a police blotter: accidental homicide ... accidental fall ... accidental overdose. But in music, accidentals are notes that add a hint of drama to a measure. Some are sharp, others are flat. Others cancel out a sharp or flat and restore a measure to its earlier key.

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor more than 300 years ago. One of the reasons why it sounds so intense is because there are notes throughout that aren't like the rest. They're not in D minor, and they add different flecks of color to the music. Those are accidentals.

The last time I saw songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint, he sat at his grand piano and demonstrated what accidentals can do in a more modern vernacular.

"Technically, whenever you play, you are usually in a major mode or a minor mode, and a certain amount of notes goes in that scale," he said, while playing the F scale on the piano. Then Toussaint played a note that sounded a bit odd. "Accidental is a very good term for that," he said, "because it's outside the scale you're in."

David Torkanowsky trained at the Berklee School of Music and became a modern jazz pianist and bandleader; his father, Werner Torkanowsky, was a symphony conductor. Torkanowsky says that while accidentals were shocking to music lovers during the Renaissance, these days you can find them all over the place, from church hymns to jazz. And yet, a well-placed one can still provoke.

"You deviate from what is expected so you have someone's attention," he says. "In this day and age, that's all you can hope for, is to have their attention for a minute."

On a music staff, accidental notations look drab. The symbol for a sharp looks like a hashtag. A flat looks like a small letter "b." The symbol for a natural — which restores the music to its earlier key — looks like a single step on a fire escape. But in the hands of a composer like Richard Wagner, they're magical tools of storytelling. Half-step by half-step, the music becomes more demanding, more visceral.

It doesn't take musical training to perform accidentals. Musicians who can't read music learn the notes by ear. And most people sing them without ever knowing that they're continuing a thousand-year tradition. Amy Pfrimmer, who teaches classical voice at Tulane University in New Orleans, says modern composers often use accidentals to enhance lyrics — a notion known as word painting.

"Word painting is giving emphasis to a particular word or passage of text," Pfrimmer says. "For example, if I was talking about weeping or crying I might have descending half-steps that would indicate something like that."

Pfrimmer says the composer behind Kiss Me, Kate was particularly clever at word painting: "In the ending of 'So in Love,' that's where a bunch of accidentals are inserted by Cole Porter," Pfrimmer says. "And you get the sense that he's actually telegraphing falling in love."

Falling in love in half-steps? Now that's good storytelling.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sometime around the 11th century, Western composers began to make room on the page for a new kind of sound. These notes would fall outside the key of a piece of music, generally a half-step higher or a half-step lower. They could even sound like a mistake. And that's how accidentals were born. Flash forward more than a thousand years, and our friend Gwen Thompkins has more to say about how necessary accidentals have become music.

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: The word accident has all the elegance of a police blotter, accidental homicide, accidental fall, accidental overdose. But in music, accidentals are notes that add a hint of drama to a measure. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote compositions that are rife with accidentals. And he sounds great.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH SONG, "CHROMATIC FANTASY AND FUGUE IN D MINOR")

THOMPKINS: Bach wrote the "Chromatic Fantasy And Fugue In D Minor" more than 300 years ago. One of the reasons why it sounds so intense is because there are notes throughout that are not like the rest. They're not in D minor, and they add different flecks of color to the music. They're accidentals.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH SONG, "CHROMATIC FANTASY AND FUGUE IN D MINOR")

THOMPKINS: The last time I saw the legendary producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint, he sat at his grand piano and demonstrated what accidentals can do in a more modern vernacular.

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: Whenever you play, you're usually in a major mode or minor mode. And a certain amount of notes goes in that scale. For instance, if you're in the key of C. (Playing piano).

THOMPKINS: Sounds like do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do, right? But an accidental is often a half-step between a re and a mi, or a fa and a so, or a so and a la. And throwing a half-step into the mix sounds kind of funny.

TOUSSAINT: If you're playing in the key of F, and you (playing piano) that's proper. And if you said (playing piano) you heard that? I think accidental was a very good phrase for that.

THOMPKINS: Accidentals make music more emotive, more suspenseful and a heck of a lot more interesting. And yet, there's nothing accidental about them. David Torkanowsky trained at the Berklee School of Music and became a modern jazz pianist and bandleader. His father, Werner Torkanowsky, was a symphony conductor.

DAVID TORKANOWSKY: The note in itself is on purpose. Let's talk about "St. James Infirmary Blues."

THOMPKINS: Yes.

TORKANOWSKY: It's a minor song, traditionally in the key of F minor. (Playing piano).

Now, all of that is in the key signature. (Playing piano). All of that's in the key signature. (Playing piano). That flat five was an accidental (playing piano) 'cause it's not in the key signature.

THOMPKINS: During the Renaissance, accidentals shocked the music-loving world. Nowadays, Torkanowsky says they've lost their shock value. They're everywhere - in church hymns, jazz and other mostly written forms of music. But a well-placed accidental can still provoke.

TORKANOWSKY: You deviate from what's expected, so you have somebody's attention. And in this day and age, that's all you can hope for.

THOMPKINS: On the stave, accidental notations look drab. The symbol for a sharp looks like a hash tag. A flat looks like a small letter B. The symbol for a natural, which restores the music to its earlier key, looks like a single step on a fire escape. But in the hands of a composer like Wagner, they're magical tools of storytelling. Half-step by half-step, the music becomes more demanding, more visible. Can you feel the mounting passion between Tristan and Isolde?

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD WAGNER SONG, "TRISTAN UND ISOLDE")

THOMPKINS: It doesn't take musical training to perform accidentals. Musicians who can't read music learn the notes by ear. And most people sing them without ever knowing they're continuing a thousand-year tradition. Amy Pfrimmer teaches classical voice at Tulane University in New Orleans. She says modern composers often use accidentals to enhance lyrics, a notion known as word painting.

AMY PFRIMMER: Word painting is giving emphasis to a particular word or passage of text. For example, if I was talking about weeping or crying, I might have descending half-steps that would indicate something like that.

THOMPKINS: Pfrimmer says Cole Porter was particularly clever at word painting. Remember the musical "Kiss Me Kate," so in love with you my love am I?

PFRIMMER: The ending of "So In Love," that's where a bunch of accidentals are inserted by Cole Porter, and you get the sense that he's actually telegraphing falling in love which I just love.

THOMPKINS: So how does someone fall in love in half-steps?

PFRIMMER: We get (playing piano, singing) I'm yours till I die.

This is still in the key signature. (Singing) So in love.

Here we're about to get our first accidental. Right there we have a little half-step happening. Then another one. (Singing) So in love.

There we get another half-step down. (Singing) With you, my love.

And then we're all the way back in the key signature. Can you see - how cool is that?

THOMPKINS: It is cool. Can you do the whole chorus?

PFRIMMER: So taunt me?

THOMPKINS: Yes, so taunt me.

PFRIMMER: (Singing) So taunt me and hurt me. Deceive me. Desert me. I'm yours till I die.

THOMPKINS: Now, that's good storytelling. For NPR News, I'm Gwen Thompkins in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO IN LOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) So taunt me and hurt me. Deceive me. Desert me. I'm yours. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.