Inside the Score – Creating Meaning in Music: Scott O’Neil at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

Music: the universal language to some, but if it’s a language, what does it express? After all, the most influential composer of the 20th century asserted that it was powerless to express anything at all. Well, this will be the shortest TED Talk ever.

But really, what can it express? If we’re willing to look beneath the surface, the answers may surprise us. Colorado Symphony Board member, Rich Kylberg from Arrow Electronics, posed the question, “If we created a sound logo for Arrow, what would that sound like?” Their motto, “Arrow, Five Years out.” Can you express that in music? Yes, we can. And here is how. The normal musical alphabet gives us A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, but it doesn’t give us R, O, or W.

Unless, we use the musical alphabet used by so many composers throughout history where instead of simply repeating A through G, you keep continuing H, I, J, K, L, M, N, etc, etc, all way up to Z, up here. So if we use that musical alphabet, we could spell “Arrow”: A, R, R, O, W (Piano playing) That’s a little scattered.

Good luck trying to sing that So if we put it all into one register it becomes– (Piano playing) Hey, spelling “Arrow” melodically doesn’t sound so bad. So let’s continue with this idea; what if we spelled “Arrow” rhythmically in Morse code? If you think this is kooky, wait to see what’s coming. Let’s start with A: short, long (Piano playing) Great, we repeat that.

(Piano playing) Good What about R? Near the bottom here (Piano playing) I like that, it kind of develops the rhythm of A What about O? (Piano playing) OK, that one’s going to be a challenge. What about W up there? (Piano playing) I like the syncopation of that.

So, already we’ve got “Arrow” spelled melodically and rhythmically. Now let’s go to that idea of “five years out”, there is a lot of potential here. Start with “five”, OK? We have already got “five” expressed in “Arrow”, A, R, R, O, W, because there are five notes in that, so we’re already on our way, but we could also express “five” by using the pentatonic scale, so named because there are five notes in it. (Piano playing) before it repeats: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; 1. And look here, our Arrow idea fits the pentatonic scale (Piano playing) When you’re a composer like me and you see a coincidence like that, “Yes!” We’ve also got the fifth scale degree: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

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Composers have used this fifth scale degree to represent something very triumphant, many times throughout history. For example, Mahler: (Piano playing) (singing) 1– 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5. Let’s use that fifth scale degree to set our phrase “five years out.” Start on five and end on five: 5-1-5. Five years out.

(Piano playing) Sounds like winning to me. Let’s just take stock of our ingredients this far: we’ve got “Arrow” spelled melodically, we’ve got “Arrow” spelled rhythmically. We’ve also got “five” expressed in the five letters of “Arrow”, and our five-note idea (Piano playing) We’ve also got “five” expressed in the pentatonic scale, and we’ve also got “five” expressed in the fifth scale degree set to the phrase “five years out.” How are we going to use these ingredients? Let’s start with the first idea, the “Arrow” idea.

(Piano playing) We’re just going to repeat that to create a motor out of this. Now the next thing we want to hear is that “five years out” main idea. So now, we get a kind of hushed expectant fanfare in the horns: (Piano playing) goes down; five years out; goes up. Meanwhile, we’ll hear the flute and xylophones start tapping out our Morse code starting on “A”, (Piano playing) but now, that “five years out” idea becomes its own full-fledged melody. (Piano playing) And finally, that “five years out”, instead of falling, now rises to a climax, “five years out.”

(Piano playing) And we go back to our original two ideas of “Arrow”, (Piano playing) followed by “five years out.” Hopefully, written in a way that captures that confident optimism that is the ethos of Arrow Electronics. Let’s listen to just that much so far. (Music) Of course, the music continues and unfortunately, we don’t have enough time to hear the whole piece, but thank you. Sounds a lot better when played by my friends at the Colorado Symphony.

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Is that it? Is that all we can express? No, no, no, no. Let’s go on, let’s go back to that idea of the Morse code. So, if we return here, we can see that the letter “V”, also known as the Roman numeral five, would be created as a rhythm like this. (Piano playing) I like that, so let’s use that to kind of get things started again. Up to this point, the 5-1-5 idea of “five years out” (Piano playing) has been kind dominant.

(Piano playing) New ending– (Piano playing) But now instead of 5-1-5, we are going to get 1-5-1, (Piano playing) I’ll explain this a little bit later, but the really cool thing that this section allows us to do is we end up modulating to the key of “W” (Piano playing) also known as “B” We’ll call it “B+”, because there is an extra pitch right there (Piano playing) I told you things could get a little kookier, well, here we go. When we get to the key of “W”, the flute is going to take the main theme, kind of a dark version of that, (Piano playing) add just one note or two, and then flip it upside down to create a new theme.

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