Radiohead, What IS That Note?

Kid A cover

Kid A cover

By Dale McGowan

This article originally appeared on How Music Does That

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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 my past 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 off of 2000’s Kid A, “How to Disappear Completely.”

Let’s listen:

Damn. There are a hundred things to talk about in there, like that cool, quiet walking bass that starts around 0:21 in the video above, 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 in the scale, 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# Phrygian.

You can learn more about the Phrygian mode in Soundfly’s free Theory for Producers course series, but basically this scale mode has this nice dark quality to it. 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 from 2:13 – 2:32 in the video above).

He really leans into it later on as the whole chord, not just one note, is on G (excerpt from 3:30 – 4:06).

You 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# minor 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, swelling harmonic mix.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How Jonny Greenwood Uses Materiality, Clusters, and Aleatoricism in His Film Music.”

The microtonality actually happens mostly in the sliding mush of strings later on. I especially love that moment when he has you whirling in a microtonal cloud of strings, then suddenly… POP! The clouds disperse and you’re back in the clear tonally (excerpt from 5:02 – 5:26).

Just a stunning effect. And it’s not unlike the effect of producing an audio illusion called a “Shepard Tone,” which is commonly used in film scores to provoke an uneasy effect.

But my favorite thing about this amazing song is one note — that high siren in the distance at the start of the track. It’s a note to haunt your dreams. What the heck is up with that note?

Here’s an excerpt:

It took me a long time to realize why that pitch sounded so otherworldly. It’s not even a pitch in the scale, a scale that is already strange. It’s a microtone, a pitch that lives in the cracks 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. Billie Eilish also uses microtonally detuned synths in her “You Should See Me in a Crown,” which provides a similarly disorienting if also kind of familiar, effect.

Now here’s a piece on Radiohead’s use of the Lament Bass that I also find fascinating — perhaps you will too.

And if you’re interested in the story of how “How to Disappear Completely” was born of Thom Yorke’s utter exhaustion after Radiohead’s infamous Glastonbury set, watch this.

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning about music theory, composition, arrangement, harmony and chord progressions with Soundfly’s suite of in-depth courses, like Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, Introduction to the Composer’s Craft, and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony. Subscribe for access here.

Dale McGowan has one foot in arts, the other in sciences, and the other in nonreligious life. He double-majored in music and evolutionary anthropology at UC Berkeley, then studied film scoring at UCLA before conducting a college orchestra while earning a Ph.D. in Composition from the University of Minnesota. Dale is managing editor of nonreligious writers at Patheos, the world’s largest website for multi-belief opinion. He teaches music at Oglethorpe University, is at work on a book about how music communicates emotion, and hosts the How Music Does That podcast.

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